Life is long: pace yourself

April 22, 2013

Among the 80 of us who took voluntary redundancy from the Sydney Morning Herald, only one was brave enough to say he was retiring to read books and smell the roses. He was always a contrarian.
He was taking the rest-and-reading approach to the third age. But to the question everyone was asking, “What are you going to do next?” most of us took the high-achiever approach. We’d work, write the novel, change career.
Those under the age of 60 had to get jobs. But even the older ones with grown-up kids and solid finances felt the word “retirement” was taboo. In the third age, nearly everyone intended to be very busy indeed.
Australia is a world leader in the longevity revolution. We’re up there with Japan, France, Hong Kong and Switzerland. Thank Medicare, our public health system, our low smoking rates….
It means if we’re aged around 60 today, men are likely to live till 83 and women to 86. That’s a whole other adult life-time to fill.
So how are we going to spend the years from 60 to 85? We have an unprecedented chance to live productive lives well beyond what was possible for past generations. We have longer to achieve our goals and dreams, longer to contribute to society, longer to be activists for the causes we care about.
But how busy do we have to be? Is being over-scheduled and competitive an imperative in the third age as it was when we were younger? At what point is it okay to slow down, become reflective, spend more time with family, friends and books?
Sixty seems too young to subsist on a diet of coffee, travel and modest volunteering. And with the tax base shrinking, the economy can’t afford to waste older people who want to work. But is 70 leaving it too late to smell the roses? At what age can the career-driven, who have already achieved so much, give themselves permission to relax? At what age is it morally defensible to grab a Me Decade before it’s too late?
The new landscape of longevity gives us all a chance to re-think the time-table of life as we have lived it in the 20th and 21st centuries. The usual pattern has been for people to cram as much study and work as possible into their 20s and 30s – get established, climb the ladder, have children; and stretch themselves thin for another 20 years. Then at 60 or 65, workaholics aside, most people retired to cram all the relaxation into the last years.
But with retirement now so elongated, it’s time to start a conversation about a better work-life balance at every stage of life. The new time-table might allow young people to take more time in their 20s and 30s to study, travel, work part-time, do volunteering, and spend more time with young children. In their 40s and 50s they might climb the career ladder, and in their 60s, 70s, even 80s ease back to part-time work if they wish. Professor Laura Carstensen, founding director of the Stanford Centre on Longevity, has said the old time-table was “built for short lives, not long ones. It makes no sense to cram all of the work into the beginning and all of the relaxation into the end.”
How to achieve a better work-life balance over the life-span is both a personal question and a political one. People are slowly grasping the new reality that “retirement” may last for decades. It no longer marks a point where people put their feet up and keep them there; where older people’s contributions to society and the economy are not needed.
But if the new time-table for life is to become a reality, it will take a change in ageist stereotyping, in employers’ approach to hiring and keeping mature-age workers, in the availability of quality part-time work, and even in the quality of volunteer work on offer. It requires a new way of thinking about the life-span: why can’t men and women have a better balance between paid work, caring, volunteering, fun and reflection at every stage of our lives? This new time-table for life might be a pipe dream that evaporates under the blow-torch of economic realities. But I hope it’s worth considering.
In the third age I know I want what eluded me in my younger decades: to work and to have time to smell the roses.

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