Little did he know it when he made his surprise announcement on Monday morning, but the decision of Pope Benedict to retire may have a profound impact on how the world views work and ageing. It was a brave decision, given that he is in a post which has traditionally only been vacated in the event of a papal death, the ultimate job for life. It is a decision that can be viewed two ways by those of advanced years — it can be seen as a sense of empowerment at being able to control one’s working life at a late age, or it could be demoralising because it represents a stark reality that at some stage, people just have to stop working merely because their bodies no longer allow them to continue.
What his departure has done is made people look at the jobs they are doing and asking if they are suited to them. Granted, the Pope is in a privileged position in that he does not have to worry about his welfare post retirement, as would not be the case for many who might similarly feel that their job is beyond them, but for whom circumstances do not permit them to vacate it. It could be argued though that what this has done is restore the dignity of old age. It is making acceptable the right of us all to say 'I just don't think I can do this job anymore’ and that there is nothing wrong with saying that.
At some stage in everyone's life, normally the fifth or sixth decade, a sense of mortality impacts on us all and we realise that we have a great sense of just where our lives are going to end up. We know how much money we have or do not have and we realise with a fair degree of certainty just how much we are likely to have in the future. We also know at what stage of our life's dream we are. We also find out if the faraway hills that we have been staring at for decades are actually under our feet. It is a time when people begin to look at who and what they are, and this creates in many a great need to leave behind something of themselves other than whatever physical property they may have. They realise what they would like their legacy to be and they know that if they are to shape that in any meaningful way, they may have to alter the way they live, the way they work, and the way they relate to the world around them.
By going when he will a fortnight from now, Pope Benedict is very astute in the definition of what his legacy will be, and of the fact that by retiring he will shape that legacy, not through his life’s work, but by taking a decision that makes it acceptable for others to realise that the job is not for life and should only be done by those who feel they can do it.
His decision to retire does take away some of the negative perceptions of ageing. It bring a sense of empowerment to those of advanced years that they can throw away the shackles of perceived sympathy or infirmity. That they don’t just fade away, that in many cases, health allowing we can be the architects of our own destiny for far longer that is generally believed.