Ludovica Gilio 

Current statistics on ageing populations show that Britain and the whole of Western Europe are heading towards a life expectancy of 100 years and a population of which a third will be over 65 by 2050. The transformation of the population pyramid implies, for the first time since 1980s, a rising of the ratio of non-workers to workers. By 2029 the Baby Boomers will all have reached the age of retirement. Being one of the largest age groups in developed countries, this generation has, and will continue to transform the meaning of retirement. However, tracing back its history through to the present, it becomes clear that the age on no-employment is in fact the product of a complex series of political, economic and cultural factors, not that of a once-removed individual choice.

Retirement is a relatively recent invention. It emerged as a consequence of a pronounced drop in the labor participation rate of European men aged 65 and over between the years of 1880 and 1980. During this time, the employment rate within this group dropped from 60-70% to nearer 10%. A change which first emerged in Germany when chancellor Otto Von Bismarck introduced the first state pension in 1889. The Old Age and Disability Insurance Act of 1889 secured a minimum income for “non-working” Germans over the age of 65. Although the average life expectancy at the time was 45, this moment marked the laying of a cornerstone towards Germany’s Welfare State. According to Bismarck, people looking forward to a pension were likely to be more productive, content, and “easier to handle” than those with no such prospect. Following Germany, state supported pensions began to be introduced in the rest of Europe and the US. Pensions in Britain were first introduced in 1909, whilst a recognisable version of our state pension was introduced in 1948 with the National Insurance Act. In the US, the 1935 Social Security Act effectively marked an official shift from families and charitable institutions to the welfare state taking responsibility for elderly care. However the intention of the act was not only that of securing a safety net for those thought to be too old to work but also a way to create workplaces for the younger generations - a way to tackle the problem of unemployment arising from the Great Depression.

Despite the increasing institutional attention towards the old, retirement itself was not viewed as a desirable phase of life. According to historian William Graebner in his History of Retirement, retirement was perceived as an embarrassing phase of obsolescence, characterised by a drop in self-esteem. However, he points out how the 1940s brought about a reformulation of retirement and its negative connotations through two main events: the development of sociological theories1 in support of the benefits of retirement as well as the proliferation of positive images around it in the media. The concept of leisure was invented as a positive alternative to the daunting prospect of doing nothing. By the beginning of 1960s retirement had acquired a whole new meaning, charged with positive connotations and synonymous with freedom from the constraints of one’s previous working life. Contributing factors to what was defined as the rise of leisure class were also an increase in general income and a series of advancements in technologies. More money allowed this generation to consume better the “product” of retirement as well as accessing differentiated forms of leisure like radio, television, VCR, which were particularly suited to the older age group.

The leisure narrative however was soon to be reversed as a consequence of the changes in the political and economic landscape. With the 2007 economic crisis and a political climate dominated by the spectre of austerity, the concept of retirement underwent a further reframing, effectively still in process today.

Retirement Today

Today the top-heaviness of the population pyramid is producing significant effects on our welfare system and on one of its fundamental institutions. Since 2007, retirement has been challenged at an economic and cultural level. One of the main challenges being whether it is socially acceptable to take those of a certain age out of the work place. This premise constitutes one of the main arguments of a neoliberal agenda concerning the notion of active ageing. Supranational organisations such as the UN, the WHO and the EU are among the main authors of a new reframing, one which positions the concept of leisure-focused retirement as ethically unsustainable and promotes a discourse academically referred to as “productive ageing.” Although the increased institutional attention towards active and healthy ageing is an incredibly relevant subject, one starts to question the limited pathways that are being encouraged in order to reach this objective. Does active ageing equate and reduce to labour/economic engagement only?

In addition to a reframing at policy level, active ageing is also a matter of political depiction. If political power was once inscribed in youthful force, the power today is old and active. Ageing well and taking care of oneself is progressively becoming the individual’s responsibility and less so one of the state. In October, the UK government released a report documenting its proposal to increase retirement age. Since the introduction of the state pension in 1948, the age target has been rising consistently and is set to reach 67 in 2024 and 68 in 2044. As part of the Government austerity measures, the state pension itself is in jeopardy. This November, in his first Autumn Statement, Chancellor Phillip Hammond stated that after 2020 changes may be needed in order to “tackle the challenge of rising longevity.” In this context, what is the future of retirement? If ageing well will progressively become an individual responsibility, what tackling “the challenge of rising longevity” will imply? What does a society of longevous wealthy few look like? What will the post retirement community look like?

Gated Retirement

The privatisation of old age has already produced intriguing models. In the US, the city with the fastest growing population is a gated retirement village near Orlando of nearly 150,000 inhabitants. A master planned community tailored around the young-old demographic, the Villages sells itself as a lifestyle product constructed through the idea of restless activity and of a vacation that never ends. This is achieved through a dense programme of consumption, leisure and sport. The master plan of the community shows a striking amount land occupied by golf courses, shopping clusters and swimming pools. On the other hand, healthcare is addresses towards the outskirts of the master plan. The 4.3 km section of the highway connecting the Villages to Orlando and Ocala is composed of a strip of private clinics ranging from cardiology to dentistry and beyond. The strip diffuses the image of the hospital as an institution associated with illness and follows the logic of a shopping mall.

In Britain, developers like Audley and LifeCare Residences are proposing models not too far from their American counterpart. In 2016, Battersea Place was launched as London’s first “luxury lifestyle retirement community.” The development is an example of the growing high end retirement market and it offers private flats in a secured building with an average asking price of £1m. The residents are offered an incredibly dense social agenda, with facilities including a concierge service, spa, heated indoor pool, gym, billiard room, sun lounge, private cinema, “chef-led restaurant,” hairdresser, beauty parlour, library as well as on-site nursing staff, a full-time care manager and the potential for 24-hour care. Here, like in the case of the Villages, retirement is sold as a lifestyle organised around the experience of leisure and of an incredibly dense programme of activities carefully confined onsite.

Exhaustion as Remedy

In the emerging scenario of a prolonged working life or of a looped vacation, where activity and speed are the ultimate imperatives, one starts to question whether there is any space left for inactivity, withdrawal, rest. Will our generation have the choice to retire as it wishes? In his essay, Exhaustion and Senile Utopia of the Coming European Insurrection, Italian theorist Francesco “Bifo” Berardi proposes an interesting and paradoxical model to challenge the productivity paradigm that Western society is so embedded in – exhaustion and passivity as social therapy. In his words, “the process of senilization may open the way to a cultural revolution based on the force of exhaustion, of facing the inevitable with grace, discovering the sensuous slowness of those who do not expect any more from life than wisdom.” Could surrendering to decline and de-growth really constitute a means to overcome the ethos of restless labor and allow us to reclaim the possibility of resting, disengaging, and even of doing nothing if we so wish?


1.    Waitless ticket prototype by the author, 2016. 2.    Diagram by the author, 2016.
3.    Still from Battersea Place advertisement video, 2016.
4.    The Villages’ entry signpost, 1992.
5.    Active ageing advertisement campaign by the author, 2016.
6.    Front image - Masterplan of the Villages by the author, 2017.


1.After 1950s, an important role was played by the “disengagement theory.” Opposing the previous “activity theory,” which viewed retirement as a violent interruption of the body’s constant need for interaction, the disengagement theorists reframed ageing as a natural withdrawal of relationships between the subject and the social system he belonged to. Retirement in this view was defined as a “permission to disengage,” preserve self-esteem while lowering activity levels. This discourse, as will be further explained in this text, was to be challenged again after the 2007 economic crisis.