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Commentary: It’s time we stopped talking about retirement

LONDON: When my 34 years on the staff of the Financial Times came to an end, I bristled when people asked about my “retirement”. I have since discovered that others my age also resent the word.

Why? First, because we dislike ageing. Baby Boomers were the generation that was never going to grow old.

The music we listened to expressed our horror at the prospect. “Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m 64?” the Beatles’ lyrics went. Simon and Garfunkel sang: “Can you imagine us years from today, sharing a park bench quietly? How terribly strange to be 70.”

Yet here we are. Those of us born into the population bulge that followed World War II are now in our sixties and seventies.

A second reason I resisted the R word is that I had no plans to stop working. I had begun preparing for my post-FT life several years earlier, spending evenings and weekends training to become a counsellor, with the hope of helping others deal with their career dilemmas.

When the time came to leave full-time journalism, I discovered my bosses were happy for me to continue contributing articles and teaching in the executive education business I had helped set up. So I have settled contentedly into a three-part career of writing, lecturing and counselling.

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I am not alone. The number of United Kingdom over-65s still working rose to 1.47 million in the quarter to June 2022, an all-time record, according to the Office for National Statistics. This compares with 1.1 million in 2014. Much of the increase was driven by part-time work and self-employment.

FINANCIAL REASONS, IDENTITY ISSUES

Part of the reason people carry on working is financial. Rising prices and the ending of gold-plated company pensions mean many cannot afford to stop working entirely. Even the best of the old-fashioned private sector final-salary pension schemes provide annual increases that fall far short of current inflation.

But there is also the desire to continue to matter. Moving on from a full-on job brings with it more identity issues than simply accepting one’s age.

There is a loss of status. The question “what do you do?” requires a new answer. The “well, I used to . . . ” response palls after a while.

Many 60- and 70-somethings I come across want to continue being players rather than spectators. Having more time to watch sport, travel or go to the theatre has its attractions. But for many, there is still a drive to participate, to be in the fray.

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One of the problems with giving up work entirely is that you could be a long time retired. The average 65-year-old can expect to live into their mid-80s in developed countries, according to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development figures.

And many are living longer than that. Worldwide, there were nearly 500,000 people aged 100 or more in 2015, four times as many as in 1990, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center report, which said the number of centenarians was likely to reach 3.7 million by 2050.

Health problems start to intrude at some point. But healthier eating and exercise (one of the pleasures of self-employment means you decide when to go to the gym) help stave them off.

RETIREMENT NO LONGER DESCRIBES OUR LATER YEARS

It is not just that many older people want to work; ageing societies will need them.

Bain, the strategy consultancy, predicts that a quarter of the United States workforce will be aged 55 or more by 2031. In Germany the figure will be 27 per cent, in Italy 32 per cent and in Japan 38 per cent.

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So if we aren’t going to call these later years retirement any longer, because so many are still working, what should we call them?

In their book Changing Gear: Creating The Life You Want After A Full-On Career, Jan Hall and Jon Stokes call this next period “the third life”. But in The 100-Year Life, Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott argue that the three-stage life – education, employment and retirement – no longer describes how we live. They prefer to talk about a “multi-stage life”.

My answer, when people asked about my retirement, was that I wasn’t the retiring type.

And those who once sang about how awful old age would be? How have they adjusted, now that they are in their early eighties? Of the surviving Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr are still performing.

Paul Simon has stopped touring (hearing loss), but has just released a new album, Seven Psalms. Art Garfunkel told Forbes that when he reached 70 he thought: “Piece of cake. Drive right through, man.” His body started letting him down a year later but, he said: “If anything, I burn stronger at this age.”

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