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The Job Of A Lifetime

Emperor Akihito is the latest ruler with a lifetime tenure to want a break. So what happens when royals retire?

Emperor Akihito wants to retire. But, like many senior citizens living out their twilight years in the 21st century, that’s easier said than done. It’s not because he hasn’t saved up enough money. It’s because the Japanese Constitution just doesn’t say that he can retire — and it could take ages for Parliament to change the law.

But if Japan’s elected leaders are wary of letting an ill, 82-year-old symbolic figurehead abdicate the throne of the world’s oldest hereditary monarchy because of tradition, there are plenty of other retiring royals and life-termers Akihito can point to to help make his case. The rest of us might be freaking out about how we’ll ever retire, but these monarchs are just figuring out that the concept exists. So what do you do if you were expecting to work until death, and suddenly have the rest of your life to do whatever you want?

Bye-Bye Queen Bea

In 2013, Queen Beatrix decided to abdicate after 33 years of ceremonially ruling the Netherlands. The then-75-year-old got a demotion so is merely a princess now, and she lives in a much smaller castle with a moat. She spends her time doing things like visiting museums where she can look at Rembrandts and Vermeers. Queen Bea was not the first Dutch monarch to retire early; her mother and grandmother did the same thing. Queen Wilhelmina — Bea’s grandma — started the trend in 1948, saying she was too tired to continue working after 58 years of ruling.


The Hardships of Royal Retirement

Belgium’s King Albert II retired the same year as Queen Bea, also citing his health; with monarchs now living longer, the prospect of working for life apparently seems far less palatable. That doesn’t mean King Albert’s post-monarchy life has been easy, though. His pay was reduced substantially, and he reportedly found it so difficult to live on a $1.2 million allowance that he asked for a raise. When lawmakers debated the retiree’s finances, they were amused at the suggestion that the Royal Navy could start maintaining his yacht. “Can you imagine?” one of them said. “Three vacation homes — one in Paris, one in Rome, and one on the French Riviera … and you have to get there yourself without an army plane taking you there.”

King Juan Carlos of Spain retired in 2014 after a few work-related scandals. One involved an expensive elephant hunt that took place in the middle of an economic meltdown. The King, who was 76 when he abdicated, broke his hip during that hunt, which also led to the end of his term as the honorary president of Spain’s chapter of the World Wildlife Fund. Now, like Queen Bea and many other less royal retirees, he goes to art exhibits and takes his grandkids out to fancy restaurants.

Ninety-year-old Queen Elizabeth II has lived longer than any other British monarch — and has ruled longer than any of them too. Naturally, speculation about whether she would ever abdicate appears from time to time. She hasn’t retired yet nor made any moves to do so, although things that bear her name (or her mother’s) have. The ocean liner Queen Elizabeth II retired in 2008; it was supposed to spend its golden years as a hotel, but has instead been floating around doing nothing and being slowly forgotten about in Dubai.

Trying to Make Retirement Happen at the Vatican


Royals aren’t the only people expected to serve for life who seem to be embracing retirement. In 2013, Pope Benedict XVI became the first pontiff to resign since 1415, saying that his “strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.” (Vatileaks probably didn’t help, either.) He later told a reporter that God told him to retire, and has spent the years since that decision living in seclusion at the Vatican’s gardens and praying. He summers at a papal palace on a lake. Pope Francis likes having a former pontiff around the Vatican, saying it “is like having a grandfather — a wise grandfather — living at home.” Francis said he was pro-retiring too, though he doesn’t plan to himself. “Our lives,” he told a reporter in 2014, “are getting longer and at a certain age there is not the capacity to govern well, because the body tires and health perhaps is good but there is the capacity to carry forward all of the problems like those in the governance of the church.”

Not Royal, But Still New(ish) to Retiring

The Supreme Court might not be a monarchy, but it offers the same kind of job security. And for a long time, it seemed like the justices felt duty-bound to keep interpreting the Constitution until their last breath. Before 1900, two-thirds of Supreme Court justices died while still serving. Now, justices retire far more often. Between 1955 and 2005, not a single Supreme Court justice died without finding a replacement first. There are three retired Supreme Court justices still living right now, and unlike monarchs and popes, many of them relish the opportunity to be more political after leaving office, despite years of perfecting the studied neutrality of relative silence.

Former Justice John Paul Stevens wrote a book about the six amendments he would add to the Constitution, and has been open with his opinions about what the current Court is doing wrong. But he also gets to relax in Florida. “I love to swim in the ocean,” he told the New York Times in 2014. Sandra Day O’Connor has been retired for more than 10 years, and has used her free time to build a website. David Souter is catching up on all of the reading he missed. He has so many books that he had to move into a new house after retiring so it wouldn’t collapse under the weight. He told his classmates from Harvard that his intellectual diet was “mostly history: the classical period, the Carolingians, Britain up through the 14th century, American Puritanism as seen by historians after Perry Miller, the United States from Jefferson through Lincoln.”

One Fish, Two Fish, Or What to Daydream About While You Wait to Retire

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Japan last saw an emperor abdicate in 1817, and it’s clear that Akihito is less interested in pursuing such an option so he can have a chance at leisure than to ensure he doesn’t make life difficult for his successor by delaying the transition process. He does have hobbies, however, that he could pursue if parliament grants his wish. He is a “part-time ichthyologist,” just like his late father Emperor Hirohito was, and a “world authority — perhaps the only authority,” per the Times of London — “on classifying the goby fish.” One species of the tiny fish is even named after him — Exyrias akihito. Sometimes his passion has had unfortunate consequences: Emperor Akihito brought back a bluegill from Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley in 1960, and the fish later became an invasive species in the country. (Akihito apologized for perhaps causing the fish immigration crisis, saying, “My heart aches to see it has turned out like this.”

Even if the abdication process takes a while, Akihito is an expert in retirements deferred. Back in 1989, when he was just starting his career as emperor, the New York Times noted that he was already 55, an age “when many people here are beginning to turn their minds toward retirement.”