The end of retirement as we have known it

As part of the consultation on a new strategy for an ageing population, we've invited a range of experts and specialists to write on topics of their choice.  In the following article age and work consultant Geoff Pearman considers the future of retirement.

“We are at the early stages of a long, difficult transition toward a different vision of the elder years, less a model of disengagement from work and neighborhood to one of continuing engagement in work and community.” – Chris Farrell, Senior Economics Contributor, Marketplace

The year is 2038. I am in my eighties reflecting back on a keynote address I gave a number of times 20 years previous. At that time I was predicting the end of retirement as it had evolved during the 20th century. I was challenged by people then in their thirties and forties who said: “What, are you telling me I am going to have to work until I drop?” Well, that was not quite what I was saying.

Father and son

So what was I saying? Let’s go back to 2018.

The demographers were plotting the impact of the boomer bulge as people born between 1945 and 1964 moved through into their sixties and beyond. The 65 plus population was projected to grow by around 77 percent, from 700,000 in 2016 to 1.24 million by 2031.

The economists were discussing the dependency ratio and the affordability of state-funded pension schemes. Raising the so-called retirement age (the age of entitlement) in line with longer life spans was advocated but was politically unacceptable. Interestingly, every other Western economy had already started lifting the age of entitlement.

The popular press continued to use such phrases as the silver tsunami, the silver surge and the burden of an ageing population. Younger journalists talked about old people as anyone over 65. To cap it off, an accident involving two people aged 67 was headlined as “Elderly Couple Seriously Injured”.

But has the surge in the number of people over 65, coupled with increased life expectancy, simply meant more retirees and older people living longer?

A silent revolution has been taking place. The boomers have continued to do what they had always done; challenging the norms and transforming each life stage as they reached it. Here we are in 2038, the oldest boomer is 93 and the youngest in their seventies. Guess what? Ideas about what it means to age are still being challenged.

The average life expectancy in 1950 was approximately 70. By 2000 it was around 80. For someone born today (2018) it will be well over 90.

Alexander Kalache, the President of the International Longevity Centre, puts it succinctly: “The 20th century gave us the gift of longevity – but for what? The longevity revolution forces us to abandon existing notions of old age and retirement. These old social constructs are quite simply unsustainable in the face of an additional 30 years of life.”

We often think of life as a series of sequential stages that follow just as day follows night: around 20 years of education and training, 40 years of work and family, and then the dreamed of golden years. The challenge we now face is that the 10–15 years we dreamed of post-work is potentially 25–30 years.

Influential British historian Peter Laslett in the 1980s talked about the emergence of a “third age”. He described it as a new stage between the end of mid-career and parenting duties and the beginning of dependant old age.

Shakespeare back in 16th century Britain talked about the seven ages of man in his play As You Like It. As early as around 600 BC an Athenian statesman, Solon, divided life into ten periods of seven years each.

The latest incarnation of linear thinking has come from the Commission for Financial Capability. They have further divided the “third age” into a Discovery phase (65–74) followed by Endeavour (75–84) and then the Reflection stage (85+). All of this suggests we are programmed to follow predetermined paths throughout life. But is this the way people are living life?

The answer is definitely no!

Life is more complicated than simply adding up the number of birthdays we have had, creating a set of categories and then conforming to a set of expectations passed down as to how we should behave at different ages and stages. In fact, chronological age is now recognised as the least reliable measure.

American gerontologist and writer Ken Dytchwald argues that rather than seeing life as a series of linear and sequential stages, we will increasingly be mixing it up. Why have education just at the front end and defer leisure until we retire?

Margaret Mead once whimsically said, “It is utterly false and cruelly arbitrary to put all the play into childhood, all the work into middle age, and all the regrets into old age.” Why not a gap year in your forties, why not a degree in your fifties or sixties, why not retraining for an encore career in your fifties or going into business for the first time in your sixties?

Looking out 20 years, people in their sixties will not be talking about the previously dreamed of destination – retirement. Rather, they will be talking about how they want to live the next stage in their lives, what contribution they want to be making, how they can continue to make a difference and how they will support themselves financially. This is not the so-called selfish generation but a generation that cares deeply about the environment, their mokopuna, and making a difference for society.

They will be mixing it up, continuing to work but with greater flexibility, and moving between paid and voluntary work and leisure. Increasing numbers will be pursuing encore careers. Older people will have the same funded access to tertiary education to upskill and retrain as younger people. People over 60 will be setting up businesses for the first time and leading start-ups that are creating innovative products and services. Business development grants and seed funding will be available to them.

Is this the future? Yes, but it is the reality now. People are already choosing the age at which they move to the next stage in their lives or alter the nature of their working life. But are they calling it retirement?

The point at which we exit paid work will have little to do with the age of entitlement to an age pension. For a growing number the intention is to never retire in the traditional sense.

This quote from a person in their late sixties may well capture the essence of positive ageing: “Guess what I want to be as I age? I want to be myself … and that may include working.”

American researcher Gail Sheehy observed that the word “retire” has become synonymous with words such as discard, dismiss, resign, retreat, seclude oneself, be unsociable, go to bed. She, like many others, is suggesting we should retire the word “retire” and replace it with a word that is much more active. She suggests “redirect” – a time in your life when you redirect your energies, talents and time.

I am not sure what the new “R” word will be. Do we in fact need one or is it simply about being who we want to be and ageing positively?

Geoff Pearman is the Managing Director of Partners in Change, a Trans-Tasman consulting business that specialises in the field of age and work. He is a consultant, facilitator, author and commentator on age and work.