I don’t identify with my peers – what does this tell me about myself?
(I haven’t really answered this question, but maybe readers can help me!)
Since retiring from paid employment around eight years ago, my time has been my own and the pleasure of leisure has stretched gloriously ever ahead. Some of the multiple benefits are being able to travel, eat and shop at off- peak times, along with all the other retirees ‘just like us’. It’s the ‘just like us’ that has become problematic over time, as we seek to take on new roles and adjust to shifting our identities from employee, work colleague, parent of living children and children of living parents, to retired, parents of adults, and parentless ourselves. We don’t feel part of the crowd, don’t know what and who the crowd is, and don’t want to be part of it, whatever it is. To try to understand, I want to go back some years.
Employment was always in mixed-age environments, and when my husband and I were a young couple we were happy to be part of a crowd and to party like the rest, though we did spend time de-briefing and being critical of bores, attention seekers, and party games. We resisted being coaxed into group activities, even if it meant offending people. For example, we refused to dress in costume for a Scottish Burns Night party, and took less than seriously the recitation of the verses we were all obliged to read out. At another weekend away we were invited to stay at a beautiful windmill in Norfolk, but we opted out of the routine – long walk, lunch at a pub, in favour of sightseeing on our own. Looking back, that was a rather rude reaction to being organized, and one we wouldn’t do now. Last year, a friend I had known for 35 years but had not regularly kept in touch with, accused me of being emotionally retarded, when I argued that it was wrong to put pressure on friends to join in organized group activities (such as Charades or Scottish Dancing, or Karaoke) if they were uncomfortable with it. She felt that if someone has gone to the trouble of organizing something they liked to do for everyone, we should in all politeness join in. My point was that these things should be negotiated and that not everyone liked performing. Needless to say, our friendship has unraveled, for this and other reasons. I don’t like group pressure, and the tyranny of the peer group. I don’t like being controlled. Don’t get me wrong – I am very flexible about what I do, and open to suggestions and cooperating with others. But I like negotiation and not assumption.
Another reason for not joining in group activities may relate to the type of work we both did, which involved massive amounts of organizing and running training events, meetings and other group ventures; addressing conferences and generally doing ‘people’ work. Luckily, the majority of what we did was immensely satisfying, and this fulfilled the need to be sociable and the levels of responsibility we took enabled high control over our work. Out of work settings then, we preferred our own company as a couple, especially in the overwhelmingly busy years. I had many years of political work with self-help, liberation and identity groups – such as Black women’s groups, which I enjoyed, and these were peers, but we shared values and purpose. This insight is a key to how and why I am now, preferring but not often finding like minded people to identify and socialize with.
When our daughter was growing up, we happily closed down most of our socializing in order to focus on her and fit in work and parenting. In our three years in Solomon Islands when she was young, I was blissfully free of paid work and spent time with other women with young children, women’s voluntary groups and as a couple, there were many social activities with other ex-pats laid on. Solomon Islanders did not have the time or the money to socialize in the same way as expatriates, so friends and acquaintances had to be drawn from a limited pool. This worked well as we made friends with other black/white couples, but the context prioritised the children, who provided the glue for relationships, as work and politics had done before.
Since retiring, we have filled our lives with travelling abroad, increased political activity, and when in England, visiting gardens and stately homes. Because of our availability when many are at work, our travels have involved going places where other retirees like to go. Even in outback Australia, where we spent two glorious weeks in a camper van, driving on empty roads, the campsites in the evening were full of heterosexual white couples of our age. It was clearly retiree heaven, but we found it more hell-like. I admit to being prejudiced when I write that all except one of the couples we met (who was French) were overweight and seemed in poorer health than we were. Do overweight older people use camper vans, or does use of camper vans contribute to being overweight? We also found ‘camper experts’ at every site, usually the men, who would freely give information on what to do and what not to do, guaranteed to make us hide from seeing them.
We home exchanged frequently, and almost all the people we exchanged with were also white heterosexual couples of retirement age. It is understandable, as like us, these people tend to be asset rich and relatively cash poor, with time to spare and the ability to be flexible. Exchangers talk about making lifelong friends through this process, and we did meet pleasant people, but only three sets of exchangers out of more than 30 are people we keep in touch with. A couple of hosts (both female) talked us into oblivion after we arrived jetlagged and tired from travelling. For quite a few people, exchanging was an opportunity to boast, to bore and even to bully their guests. Thankfully, there were not many bullies, but we did have to endure DVDs of one couple’s family singing in a concert….the whole concert……
We have had more time to campaign for the political party we support, and join in associated activities and organisations. A new left-leaning organization was set up three years ago, which we grasped at given that the existing party we supported was dominated by a ‘right wing’ conservative faction even though it was not a ‘right-wing’ party. Unfortunately, the people with the most time to spend on this new organization were politically sound, but extremely dominant older white men, who had not learned to control themselves and the space they occupy, and who are not going to change without a direct power struggle. A couple of years ago I door leafleted a neighbourhood with two women from this group and they told me I wasn’t ‘doing it properly’; another time, a man told me I wasn’t handing out leaflets in the street properly! Such prevalence of power-hungry people is truly off-putting. Work life was stressful enough; I don’t want this in my new life!
Maybe moving from the area will give us a chance to start afresh and look for mixed age groups. Today we walked to Central Milton Keynes railway station and welcomed a group of 180 cyclists riding from Coventry to London in support of Palestine and Palestinian freedom. Mixed in ethnicity, mixed in gender and in age, we felt comfortable.
It is in one of our favourite pastimes, visiting stately homes and gardens, that we have felt our difference most acutely. We have been National Trust members since we met 40 years ago, paying a yearly subscription for unlimited entry to historic homes and gardens. We lapsed for a few years when work and family life took over and also when we lived abroad, but are now avid visitors. We used to be the youngest adults there, and I was certainly the only visible minority until relatively recently, but now the place is full of our generation, and happily more ethnically mixed. But oh, everyone walks so slowly and fusses over details such as food choices, where to sit, and how far it is to walk. Last week a group spread their possessions all over the table in a busy café, so nobody took ‘their’ table while they bought lunch. Again, I make the judgement about how glad I am not to ‘be like’ them; on the other hand, how easy it could be to ‘be like them’, which is scary. Maybe the inner blob and the unhealthy genes are trying to get out, and must be rescued at all costs!
We have toyed with joining local organized leisure and skill groups. Brian is more tolerant than I am (but is also a white man and not a visible minority) and was part of conservation and park volunteers for a couple of years. I joined a community choir and a weekly Pilates class a few years ago, and did feel comfortable in both, but it was at the same time as we bought the house in France, so was not possible to keep up attendance. At the moment I am thinking that when we move, I will join some group activities that I would be unlikely to sustain alone, and give people a chance. There is a community choir in Shoreham, Pilates classes and also dance classes that will help my poor coordination. I am also attracted to watercolour painting, and of course, political campaigning, where I hope I will not be told how to put a leaflet through a letterbox, or how to hand a leaflet to a passer by!
We like the thought of scenic cruises, for example, to see the Northern Lights in Norway, or the Northwest Passage from Canada, but we worry about taking them, for the reasons outlined earlier. On the Norwegian cruise website, someone had written about how a group of tourists travelling together had rushed onto the boat, grabbed all the best seats and spread all their belongings over the area. Not a good start. I rest my case!