Retirement is not for bludgers

April 21, 2014
older volunteer

Life starts at 60. That’s the topic I was asked to address in a recent talk. But I insisted on putting a question mark at the end. Does it? It’s fashionable to think we’ll be reborn in our sixties into a world of pleasure and leisure. But really, it’s nonsense. By the time you reach 60 to a large extent you’ve made your life. Through good and bad luck, hard work and temperament you’ve got the structures in place – or you don’t. You’ve arrived at your sixth decade single and happily independent, or with a partner you still like. You’ve got there with money or with debt, with a network of reliable friends, with a home; or you maybe none of these things. If through bad luck, bad decisions, or a bad marriage you’ve arrived at 60 lacking secure foundations, it’s tough to build a new life. Ask men who’ve let friendships lapse about finding a network of buddies post-60; ask older women on the Newstart Allowance. “Life starts at 60” can sound pretty glib to the significant minority of older people who’ve fallen on hard times.

Fortunately most of us do have the basics in place. We’ve to a large extent made our life. Phew, we’ve got here. We’re the advantaged ones. We’ve reached our 60s with options and opportunities. I’m among you, enormously privileged. I had great parents, good state education, good men who loved me. I’ve had a happy career in journalism. I was there in the golden era. So the question for us is how do we live our lives now? For those of us on secure foundations, who’ve bit by bit pieced a good life together, how do we continue to contribute? Retirement need not mark the point where our contribution is no longer expected or necessary. Retirement should not mark the start of the Me decades.

Australians’ view of retirement has changed over the years. In the 1950s, retirement was a time of rest. Men broken by blue-collar jobs they’d started at 15 needed to recover. In the 1970s retirement was a reward: in return for years of labour and taxes society owed you the Age Pension and a few years of leisure before you died. By the 1990s retirement was seen as a right. It was a time of R&R – rest and recreation – cruises and grey nomading. The super industry cranked up expectations of retirement to include overseas holidays, air conditioning, restaurant meals, wine, and top rate private health insurance.

But just because we’re retired and no longer paying taxes, doesn’t mean society owes us 20 or 25 years of leisure. Just because we’re retired doesn’t mean we’re tired, as the Boston writer Ellen Goodman has said. Most of us are not physically broken by our desk jobs. A new mindset is needed for these years. We’re healthier, better educated than past generations of retirees. We don’t think old age starts at 65 as our grandparents did. Here’s a new R&R approach to retirement – it’s about renewal and responsibility.

Retirement is definitely an opportunity for personal renewal. Freed of the pressure to strive and compete, we can finally tap the nicer person lurking within – the more relaxed, well-rested, unhurried one. Surveys show people in their mid-60s are happy – possibly the happiest we’ll ever be. In our youth many of us were anxious and self-conscious. As we near the end of our lives, our sense of well-being dips again. But this is the sweet spot. If our retirement’s been voluntary not forced, if we’ve got those foundations in place, this can be a golden time to try new things, to get into shape, to travel, to spend more time doing what we love. Some people do find “encore” careers, and late-life divorcees do find “encore” loves. As a UK survey showed, people at this age can feel more vital than at any time since their thirties.

But it’s also a time to give back, to be responsible citizens. I think many people in their 60s and older have already adopted this new R&R approach to retirement. They’re giving back or looking for opportunities to give back. Some care for grandchildren or elderly parents, or help out financially. In total older Australians give $22 billion a year to help their adult children. Many volunteer – though the main age bracket for volunteering is 45-54, not retirees. Some older people are concerned about the environment, climate change, housing affordability, the legacy being left the next generations. They’re involved in organisations that are trying to make Australia a fairer place. In the US they have a term, “selfish geezers,” to describe well-off older people who get roused only when their own financial interests are threatened. But that’s far from a representative picture.

So in this new retirement era, this period of personal renewal and social responsibility, some of us find it’s all about balance again. Just as we tried in midlife to strike the right balance between work and family, so we’re juggling again. This time the balance we seek is between nurturing our relationships, and contributing to the wider society. It’s between being more relaxed, and being bored. It’s between having leisure and having purpose. In 15 years it might be time to grab a Me Decade, a period to reflect on the life we’ve made. But right now we’re busy living it.

What’s your experience of retirement? What are your plans? Please Comment.

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