When is it time to call it a day? Even for Serena Williams, the choices can be limited

<span>Photograph: Seth Wenig/AP</span>
Photograph: Seth Wenig/AP

June Spencer, aged 103 – an extraordinary example of being as young as they think you are, as the columnist Katharine Whitehorn once put it – has decided that, after 70 years in the role of the indefatigable matriarch Peggy Woolley, it’s time to retire from BBC Radio Four’s The Archers. “In 1950, I helped to plant an acorn… called The Archers,” she explained. “Over the years it has thrived and become a splendid great tree with many branches. But now this old branch, known as Peggy, has become weak and unsafe so I decided it was high time she ‘boughed out’, so I have duly lopped her.”

Also last week came the announcement of the departure of the queen of the tennis court for more than 20 years, Serena Williams. In a Vogue interview, the 23-time Grand Slam singles champion, now aged 40, announced: “I am evolving away from tennis… I’m ready for what’s next.” The reason for retirement from the sport in her case will be no surprise to many women: namely, you can’t have it all. At least, not on the terms currently on offer.

If I were a guy… I would be out there playing while my wife would be doing the physical labour of expanding our family

Serena Williams

Williams explains in the September issue of the magazine that she never wanted to choose between tennis and a family but she is hoping for a second child. “I don’t think it’s fair. If I were a guy… I would be out there playing and winning while my wife would be doing the physical labour of expanding our family.” The mother of five-year-old Olympia said: “I definitely don’t want to be pregnant again as an athlete.”

Once, not so long ago, an employee served his or her 30 or 40 years in the same job and retired with a carriage clock, only to peg out a few years later. Work-life balance and rearing a family were part of the invisible world in which most employers had little interest and next to no investment.

For decades, women lobbied for more flexibility in the workplace, a three-day week without forfeiting a career and almost nothing changed. Family commitments and astronomical childcare costs meant that, for many, early “retirement” was not so much a choice as an imposition. Then came Covid-19.

Working from home became the norm, “lost” hours from commuting were found again, thousands of employees tasted a form of semi-liberation from the rat race and the result has been that, while the work ethic is alive, it’s apparently far from well. Last week, Dame Sharon White, the chair of John Lewis, made a plea for the one million people, mostly aged between 50 and 70, who left paid employment during the pandemic to return to the labour market. She said that many of those leaving employed work could cause “profound, long-term systemic implications”, resulting in low productivity and rates of growth. Of course, economic hardship may force some back – but in the social contract between employers and bosses a great deal is amiss, so why wouldn’t many choose to call it a day on a life of labour that too often currently brings so few rewards?

A recent PCS union survey of 12,000 mainly junior civil servants found that 40% had to take out a loan or credit to pay for essential shopping, 9% were claiming benefits to top up their income and 14% had taken second and third jobs to make ends meet. In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that a 15-hour paid working week would be made possible in the 21st century by improved productivity and technology. Instead, for many, the working week has grown longer, prospects are insecure, frequent career/job change is an expectation and wages have flatlined for years as inflation and energy bills have soared. Against that backdrop, some have had early retirement forced on them by redundancy, sickness or family commitments, while for others it isn’t so much a choice as a straightforward trade-off: live a more frugal life but for a few years longer.

June Spencer, photographed in 2019
June Spencer, photographed in 2019, is retiring from The Archers, at the age of 103. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

The impact of Covid on employment practices means that, in spite of the demands of some politicians and economists to delay the official retirement age to 67 and older, for many, when to opt out is increasingly becoming a personal decision. For the June Spencers of this world, able to control their working hours, in love with what they do, retirement may never be an option. Others may feel unable to surrender the identity and status they believe their job bestows – but what of those in “dirty” or distressing work, a shift in an abattoir or a building site or an overstretched hospital A&E? And if the 75-year-old sits tight at his or her workbench, does that stop a twentysomething finding work?

In Time on Our Side: Why We All Need a Shorter Working Week, published in 2013, a range of voices made the social justice arguments for everyone working fewer hours (30 hours over four days) at a decent wage, creating a new consensus about what constitutes “a good life”. Post-Covid, sadly, that still seems a pipe dream.

The agenda for persuading men and women to work for longer if that’s what the economy and White require isn’t complex. Subsidised affordable childcare, reasonable hours, a fair wage, flexibility, in-work skills training and respect are obvious requirements. The Social Market Foundation, a thinktank, recently published a report on London’s working poor. All participants said that businesses ought to be “ more understanding, caring and proactive”. Or, to put it more simply, treat an employee like a human being with a world outside the workplace and he or she might be willing to stay the course for just that little bit longer.

• Yvonne Roberts is a freelance journalist, writer and broadcaster

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