Time to rethink retirement

Don’t sell yourself short – 60 is not the new 50, but it’s not the old 60, when you were ready to be put out to pasture.

The life stage called retirement is a false proposition. And now, at last, many are recognising the ‘retirement’ label for what it really is – an obsolete term for ‘end of meaningful life’ that has always been more about marketing than substance. But what will replace the ‘golden days of retirement’ concept, and how can we prepare ourselves for what comes after full-time work?

Before considering the ways we might rethink our own transition toward a time of less work and more meaningful pursuits, it helps to understand how the idea of ‘retirement’ first came about – and why it no longer applies to active adults in their 50s, 60s and beyond.

In 1909, Australians were awarded an Age Pension equivalent to $1 per week. At that time life expectancy was 55, so few were expected to live long enough to claim this income, let alone enjoy it. A social service payment for older Americans was first instigated in 1935. Ironically the recipient, a lady named Ida May Fuller from Vermont, lived until she was 100. But Ida was highly unusual. Most older Americans and Australians turned up their toes long before they received any form of government benefit.

Marketing the golden years
As time went by, improved nutrition and medical science delivered increased longevity. American property developer Del Webb created Sun City, the first retirement village, in 1966. It was a runaway success and the ‘formula’ for selling retirement was struck; just tell older people that they’ve earned their right to rest, play golf and associate with other silver-haired friends, in splendid isolation from the worries of the real world.

This formula has been emulated time and again across many industries – financial services, cosmetics, medical aids, travel – and images of middle-class retirees enjoying the life of Riley abound.

Sadly, such images and superficial marketing messages have reinforced the notion of a separate life stage that comes after childhood, education and a productive working life. This stage is all about retreat and withdrawal.

Unsurprisingly, many thinking adults have simply never bought into this message. And now, with rapidly ageing populations in most developed nations, swollen by the baby boom of the 1950s and 60s, governments are starting to realise that the exclusion of older workers from the workforce is economic suicide. The funding of pensions will become unsustainable unless workers remain engaged and productive well into their 60s and 70s.

The big picture
The numbers speak for themselves. Australia’s population is now tipped to rise to 35 million before 2050. Of this number, 22 per cent will be aged over 65 (the current pension age). Average life expectancy for men (79) and women (84) means (for most) 14 or more years of active living. With fewer younger workers contributing to the tax base, and competition for migrant workers hotting up amongst countries facing similar skills shortages, it is becoming increasingly apparent older workers will be needed badly. This is the ‘macro’ picture of retirement, which is of great relevance to governments, business, labour, nongovernment organisations and the message makers – media and marketers. Predictably, it is the financial issues which are captivating governments worldwide. Put simply, the latter will be bankrupted if there are insufficient workers contributing to the tax pool. Legislation outlawing age discrimination has been filtering through in recent years – it is now illegal in Australia to be refused work on the grounds of your age.

Treasury has warned us that between 2017 and 2023, the Age Pension age will gradually increase to 67 years. Workplace reform includes a huge push to encourage workers to ‘transition’ to retirement by cutting down hours or moving to contractual projects rather than leaving the workplace entirely. This has many advantages for all parties, but in particular could offer an ongoing income stream for individuals (which delays application for an Age Pension) and, for employers, an opportunity to stem the loss of skills and experience possessed by mature-age workers.

Attitudinal change may be legislated for, but it is one thing to legislate, quite another to change people’s minds and actions, as attempts to outlaw racism show. Media and marketers still insist on portraying older people as frail, dependent and passive – it is only when more writers, photographers and advertising managers themselves hit 60 and beyond that they will ‘get’ how potent such mature adults really are.

What about you? 
But not everything is about the big picture. The retirement rethink needs to occur at a very personal level as well, although it is important for us to understand the overview in order to decide our own, individual, approach to what comes next.

So how does this discussion affect you personally? You’ve worked hard, maybe even raised and educated a family, and now you’re exhausted and think some ‘time out’ sounds fair enough. If other people choose to call that retirement, well so be it.

This is a common attitude for those who have been in the workforce for three or more decades without a significant break. You’ve earned your rest, so take it. But don’t forget that the common ‘retirement’ experience, even for the superexhausted, is, as George Bernard Shaw suggested, ‘a living hell’. Why? Because most of us still have a lot to give and find that active engagement with the world around us is what makes us happiest. So how will you rethink the key aspects – money, work and attitude – of your life?

Do you have choices? 
The later years of our lives have the potential to be the most fulfilling of all. If we remove the notion of a formal stopping point called retirement and reconsider how we can best mix work, play and family, the outlook is likely to be either very good – or very bad. Good, if you have choice and independence.

Bad, if the reverse is true. Our sense of choice is usually based upon good health, sufficient income and strong career and family connections. Put simply, if you have enough to live on, feel fit enough to tackle new challenges and enjoy the support of friends, colleagues and family, you have every reason to be optimistic about your later years.

Those who view this time of life more negatively often lack such choice. It may be that poor health prevents them from being as actively engaged as they would like, and that this has also had an impact on income, further reducing their options.

Such people may have always worked in a low-paid job, or spent time in and out of the workforce and not been able to save very much. There are 1.3 million Australians who describe themselves as carers. Some spend upwards of 10 hours a day caring for someone in need. For such carers, financial and career choice is a longed-for luxury.

Being physically or socially isolated can also impact on attitudes towards later years. The above scenarios represent the two ends of the scale for adults moving into their 50s and 60s and you could be anywhere along this scale. What is most important, when trying to rethink your retirement possibilities, is to recognize those aspects of your life you are able to change, those you cannot and, as the saying goes, accept the difference.

Rethinking retirement applies to those things you believe you can change. They will probably fall into one of three different categories: money, work and attitude.

Five ingredients for a fulfilling (non) retirement

1. Become a scrooge
Instead of railing against marketers with dumb messages about ‘retiring rich’, illustrated by pumped-up silver haired bimbos and blokes, turn down the advertising ‘noise’ and become a scrooge. Only buy what you need rather than what you (fleetingly) think you want. That’ll show them.

2. Learn something
Anything. Whether it’s an old-fashioned craft such as pottery or a new-fashioned skill such as digital photography, learn something fast. If you’re not learning, your brain will wither and die. And no, the daily crossword is not enough.

3. Give
Give your money, your time, your assistance, your knowledge or all four. Give until it hurts – although it probably never will. The only way we truly come alive is when we improve the lot of someone else. Your giving may take the form of volunteering, informal or formal care, donations or mentoring. It really doesn’t matter. The rewards, incidentally, are huge. You won’t leave the planet a bitter and twisted old
fool. You can’t, if you remain connected through the gifts you have made.

4. Save the world
Yes, really. Unless you think it’s in great shape, of course.

It’s common for older generations to think the world is going to hell in a handbasket – but wouldn’t it be magnificent to be part of the first generation to actually try to save the world? To right wrongs in the Middle East or Africa, to save the environment or – why stop there – the entire planet?

Go on, what’s holding you back?

5. Dream
Remember when you were a kid messing round in the back yard, maybe dreaming of becoming the next Donald Bradman, Yvonne Goolagong or Paul McCartney? Well, you may not have made it in the superstar stakes, but if you still feel the heart of a teenager beating firmly in your breast, then maybe it’s time to honour your teenage dreams.

Whether it’s bike riding, tree planting, oil painting or starting a new political party, you owe it to yourself and the world to give it a go.

Don’t you?

Rethinking money
This may seem difficult if you are already scrimping and saving to exist on a very low income. Ideally, the earlier we review our saving and investment plans, the better. The single most important thing any of us can do is to separate our sense of self from our income and savings: to understand that the money we have does not reflect the type of person we are. Confusing money with status is a nowin situation – you’ll never have enough to feed that inner ego.

Understanding money as a means to an end – a tool to provide shelter, food and clothing – is the starting point for happy financial planning. The less you need extra money for luxuries, the longer you can live on less, thus freeing up your time and energy for the things you really love, whether family, travel or an important cause. One of the world’s richest men, Warren Buffet, still lives in the same house he bought when he got married 50 years ago. He sees no reason to upgrade. There are always resources for those prepared to embrace the old-fashioned idea of living within their means. In a consumer driven society this may seem a scary proposition, but living within your means can also be incredibly liberating.

Rethinking work
Taking a fresh approach to work is becoming easier as more flexible employment opportunities emerge. The bad news is that the ‘job for life’ no longer exists – your company may or may not want you on Monday morning. The good news is that the new flexibility of parttime, contractual or project arrangements means you can leave and re-enter the workplace to better suit your situation. Recent research tells us that 70 per cent of current workers would like to work fewer hours before eventually leaving the workplace.

Most employers are happy to support this transition. But very few employees seem prepared to raise the topic – perhaps fearing they will lose their jobs if they appear unwilling to work any less than full-time. If you are in this situation, do an objective audit of your performance and how you believe you can downsize your job, and then start a discussion with your employer. No matter how well we have prepared for our financial futures, it is highly likely many of us will outlive our retirement incomes. So planning for a supplementary salary as we grow older makes very good sense – and downsizing your current job can be an effective way of going about this.

Rethinking your attitude
We’ve considered the ‘macro’ attitude and wooing of older workers now they are seen as vital to the economic futures of their countries – but what is your attitude towards your own future? Do you see yourself as vital, engaged and a valuable resource? Or are you, too, guilty of telling yourself that your best days are over?

Many of us ‘fell into’ our current careers, our decisions shaped by parental influence, perceived skills or random opportunities which came our way. But career planning is not just for teenagers. If, for reasons financial or vocational, we plan to work longer, we owe it to ourselves to do something which is both satisfying and meaningful. Now is our opportunity to reconsider all our options and decide to take on new challenges, new careers, new opportunities. Deciding we are ‘past it’ will only ensure life gets duller by the day. But tackling our ‘recareering’ will not work if we think we know it all already. Being open to new ideas, new ways of doing things and new ways of thinking is essential to staying relevant. For too long older adults have been forced into retirement way before their time. Our 60s, 70s and 80s have been portrayed as a time of decline and loss. We no longer need to accept such a negative view of our potential. We owe it to ourselves and future generations to give a new life stage – that of NON retirement – a really good go.

Centrelink offers financial information to anyone, regardless of their age or financial status, via face-to-face appointments, telephone or in public seminars.
Ph 13 23 00

Written by Debbie McTaggart

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