Call it a freaky coincidence if you like, but I happened to run into one of Mr Calvin Cheng’s sayings around the time of the anniversary of Exercise Swift Lion, which took the life of a dear friend and one of his men in Wairau, New Zealand, back in 1997, when the barrel of the 155mm howitzer he was commanding exploded, killing him and the layer instantly.
Mr Cheng, being the “interesting” character he is, decided to add fuel to the fire of a very real and contentious issue – namely, the grim reality that most of us are going to have to work till the day we die.
Retirement is a privilege, not a right, he said.
But why do I say it was a coincidence that I came across Mr Cheng’s words at a time when the guys in my national service batch remember an incident that cut down one of our own?
Because my friend died young. He didn’t have the “privilege” of retirement.
I believe Mr Cheng has a point. Let’s not talk about retirement. Longevity should be a privilege and not a right. If nature had a way, we’d all have died of a disease or been picked off by a predator.
Ancient societies revered the old (which was defined as anyone over 40) because they had done what they were not supposed to – they survived despite the odds.
However, what nature intended and what is natural are two different things. Back in the Stone Age, I’d be revered for making it to 48. Today, I’m wondering how I am going to spend the rest of the 40-plus years I may have left. Short of a freak accident, I’m probably going to see the decline of my body and mind and, somehow, what little I have left in my bank is going to have to last.
Believe it or not, this is progress. Some of the best brains in history have struggled to find ways to ensure that we are able to live as long as we can. The only predators that humans face these days are other humans, and most diseases can be cured. Just look at how quickly vaccines were found for Covid.
There are silver linings even in the historically low fertility rates that developed countries are seeing. There’s a reason why people are not having babies like they used to. Women, or the people who actually carry the babies, are discovering other things that give them fulfilment. And, although many people are not having babies, the ones that do get born are almost certain to see adulthood and live well into their old age.
Longevity is no longer a sign that you have learnt the secret art of defying nature. Today, it’s understood that people who live in relatively prosperous and stable societies will live to see their 80th birthday.
Given that we’ve turned longevity into a normal thing, it should go without saying that we also need to find solutions for the side effects. Retirement is one of them. Sure, at one time, retirement may have been a privilege because it meant that you had defied the odds to live to old age. Now, the situation has changed. Living a long life is part of the natural order, and having the means to live that said life should also be part of the natural order of things.
While Mr Cheng may have secret fantasies of living in the Jurassic Age, I believe most of us would rather not. We, as a race, have made great strides and should continue to look forward to greater progress. Mr Cheng should keep his fantasies of the Jurassic Age to himself.
A version of this article first appeared at beautifullyincoherent.blogspot.com