Yes, it’s another semi-speculative article about the Warhammer 40,000 setting. Skip it if that makes your brain bleed.
A commonly-cited Imperial axiom is: ‘Only in death does duty end.’
This is often taken to mean that Imperial service is like the Mafia: once you’re in, you’re in for life. I feel it’s a lot more complicated than that.
Someone on the 40k For Grown Ups Facebook group asked if anyone retired in the Imperium and I started typing:
Commissar Yarrick retired once. It didn’t stick.
But yes, some parts of the Imperium almost certainly do allow retirement, if you live long enough to enter it.
After all, it’s a waste of valuable materiel to put a lasgun into the hands of a half-blind, arthritic, Dad’s Army soldier, when there are a new generation of Imperial Guardsmen just waiting to replace him. The Munitorum knows better than that. According to the Rogue Trader RPG, when discussing the immense level of redundancy amongst the crew of Imperial Navy ships, people are the biggest resource advantage that the Imperium has over pretty much every xenos species out there. As such, it is possible to discharge soldiers who are no longer combat-effective.
Also, the promise of retirement is a great incentive to do an awful job for awful pay. The Imperium’s had ten millennia to realise that faith in the Emperor might be fine and dandy for the fanatics, but the average Guardsman’s going to need something more tangible to look forward to.
Even when circumstances, casualty rates or poor resource management prevent the rank and file from ever retiring, officers almost certainly have that to look forward to. They’re often Imperial nobility, so they’ve got a place in society to go back to, as well as access to the funds to pay for their own passage there.
The same probably applies to officers in the Navy. The lower naval ranks probably informally retire into less strenuous roles than the labour-intensive duties most common on human voidships, or possibly even actual retirement within the bowels of the ship they call home, after training up their sons and daughters, and maybe later grandchildren, into the position in which they spent their life.
From a civilian angle, retirement almost certainly exists, although what sort of pension scheme awaits the unproductive elderly is more questionable. It should be noted though that workplace health and safety is horrifically poor in the Imperium: one of the Abnett novels makes mention of Administratum scribes having all sorts of face and neck tumours due to spending too long staring at unsafe cogitator screens. Life expectancy in the Imperium probably varies massively, and on some worlds or in some employment sectors, retirement might be nothing more than a dream.
There’s often mention in background (particularly in hive world societies) of semi-tribal work-crews where they’re as much family as they are colleagues. If that’s the case, they’d look after their elderly and infirm (unless the elderly go full-Eskimo Days and wander off into the ash wastes to avoid becoming a burden), and in return the elderly and infirm will look after the young and helpless, thus strengthening their society.
‘Only in death does duty end’ probably shouldn’t be taken too literally. A retired Guardsman can serve by growing crops to feed the next generation of Guardsmen, or by looking after the children of those who work in factories supporting the Imperium’s eternal war effort. A retired Inquisitor can serve by writing his or her memoirs, for the information and education of future Inquisitors and other Imperial servants (for example, Ravenor’s works are renowned by the characters in any stories written by Dan Abnett in the past decade).
That said, there are probably societies that execute those that can no longer serve, because the Imperium sucks as a society.
Finally, no, Space Marines don’t retire. Astartes don’t age at anything like the rate that humans do. Usually, Space Marines die in battle. Those that avoid dying are either still in tip-top working order and thus continue to serve on the front lines, or are so belaboured by old battle wounds that they become instructors for future generations of aspirants.