Life in the old psychologist yet

Chartered Psychologist and British Psychological Society Associate Fellow Harry Gray with some recollections and reflections on turning 90.

This May, I passed a milestone few psychologists do – I entered my tenth decade. Ten years ago, I was annoyed when an academic who was just about to retire himself tried to tell me I was past being academically useful, because ‘all older people over 65 are less intellectually able than younger ones’. With a new book just out on leadership, I hope to demonstrate that if there is a prejudice in academia it is unfounded. It is very clear to me that retired academics – perhaps especially psychologists? – have a significant role to play in their later years.

Roots and influences

I have been a professional psychologist most of my working life, gaining a Master’s degree at Leeds in organisational studies in 1970. I was an early developer in the emerging sub-field of management in education and worked at all levels in research and development, including being a government adviser in higher education.

There were two big influences on the way my thinking developed. Philosophically I was drawn to the phenomenological perspective by Tom Greenfield of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). We met at an international conference in Scotland and I taught summer school several time at OISE, developing a circle of international scholars in education. The other influence was Carl Rogers and ‘person centred’ psychology, then strong at Keele University where I taught on the postgraduate post-graduate Diploma course. I am very much at home in the psychology of the individual in organisational settings by generally being in a ‘participant observer’ role.

The big personal advantage for me as a professional is that researching how people behave in organisations is itself a very subjective mode and most of my writing adopts this stance. I soon became known for my theoretical approach. I was part of the old style university model – teaching and research driven by curiosity and not, as is so often the case, by income generation. All my work as an academic involved counselling senior managers and engaging with them in conversation.

A professional attitude on life

So, now that I am entering my 90s, how do I make sense of my life and give it purpose that is missing for many retired academics? 

Because I suffer badly from arthritis, I have moved into a residential complex of flats where I can be independent but still have some material support for my lifestyle. I have a professional attitude on everything in my new life, and that includes wondering how providers of accommodation for old people think about the ageing process and the kind of support old people need. I quickly found out that there is very little deep thinking about the experience of ageing. So I am starting a research journal – the International Journal for the Philosophy of Ageing – drawing on my overseas network of working and retired academics.

With an informal group of colleagues in my residence, who are as bright as buttons, discussions about life in a protected environment are bringing out much hidden information. I have a project on the process of grieving with the chaplaincy of the University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay (UHMB Trust). I have a new publishing business, CANAL Ltd – Capability Age Network and Links – which grew out of ideas shared with younger colleagues about the way to improve capability in older people. I will be associated with Age UK and the Eden Project in Morecambe on a story-telling project. And I have shared my ideas with friends at Lancaster University, where some old threads can be taken up.

Looking outward

Each of us has to choose how our later life draws on our previous career and interests. I was determined that living in a quasi-community I was not going to lead a life of daily card games and being taken out by my family when it suited. One does not have to look inwardly all the time. I have a mission to help older people to lead rewarding lives that are thriving and self- driven. I am ever-aware that too many older people neglect parts of their life such as sexual libido, and in some ways that is a greater loss than is ever acknowledged. Ah – I see another research topic for a retired psychologist…

Further reading 

Gray, H., Gimson, A. & Cunningham, I. (2022) Developing Leaders. Emerald.

Greenfield, Thomas B. (1973). Organisations as Social Inventions – Rethinking assumptions about change. Journal for Applied Social Sciences. 

Rogers, Carl (2004). On Becoming a Person. Robinson.

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