It’s a mistake to retire too soon

August 30, 2015

If you’re feeling the pressure to retire from work just resist it, says Renata Singer in her great new book called Older and Bolder.  Don’t be one of those bored retirees who looks back in regret at having stopped work too soon.

It’s a message aimed particularly at women. Husbands eager for a playmate or travelmate try to seduce you with promises of overseas travel. Daughters and sons produce adorable grandchildren who soon need hours of daytime childminding. Retired friends regale you with tales of a stress-free life. Younger workmates eye you as if you’re a boulder blocking their path. But resist them all, says Renata.

“If you’re feeling the pressure to retire, stay doing what you love and are good at for another ten years,” she insists.

I’ve never met Renata Singer but I think I’d like her. We have a bit in common. We’re both Australians with a Polish-Jewish heritage. She’s interested in exploring how to live a good life after you’ve turned 60. She admits she’s not one of those relentless optimists favoured to enjoy a happy, energetic old age. She’s not “renowned for bringing laughter and lightness,” she says of herself. (Someone once called me “the most earnest columnist in Australia.” That hurt). But like me, she sees value in moving in the direction of laughter and lightness.

Renata has spent two years interviewing funny and feisty women in Australia and the US aged between 85 and 100 to learn their life lessons. What do these vibrant and interesting women have to teach women in their 50s and 60s?  Many of the lessons have relevance for men, too. You can read the women’s advice on money, sex, housing, health and so on in Renata’s book.

But the chapter that grabbed my attention was about work. For many women I know, as for Renata, we’re in the watershed years. Some women are working hard fulltime, some are being pushed out of jobs, some are being seduced out, and others are grappling with whether they ought to leave and join the throng of retirees who insist they’ve “never been busier.”  The strong message from Renata’s book is “Don’t retire. Keep working.” The women who left work under duress or caved in to societal and family pressures “are telling us to hang in there and not give in to the ‘go’ sayers,” she writes, “or those holding out carrots of allurement. You still have much to offer and you’ll regret giving up your job.”

She cites the example of Dr Margaret Barnett who set up the cytogenetics lab at St Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne. Her work as the head of a large department came abruptly to an end when she was forced into retirement at 65 (before compulsory retirement was outlawed). She felt she could have worked at least ten years more, and hated retirement. “I just thought I wasn’t useful anymore. It was a horrible feeling,” she told Renata. More than 20 years later, she still felt the loss of purpose work gave her.

Elisabeth Kirkby was a Democrat Party member of the NSW Legislative Council from 1981 to 1998 and didn’t leave the job by choice. At 77 she retired because “the party believed that a younger person should have the opportunity,” she told Renata. The pressure to go was too much.

It’s unfashionable for retirees to admit they’re bored or haven’t got enough to do. Writers, painters, sculptors, and others of an artistic bent can nearly always find something absorbing to do. So can bridge players apparently. But it’s not always so easy for people suddenly deprived of intellectual work to find the same satisfaction in volunteering, morning coffee, board work or the gym. A lot of unnecessary home renovations, I think, are undertaken by retirees who need a project.

At 71 a friend of mine longs for the intellectual rigour, challenges, and purpose her working life gave her before it was cut short by caring duties. A family friend forced to retire in her late 50s to join her husband in leisure took a decade to get over the loss. Her job as a secretary in Parliament House had been interesting and fun.

The women Renata interviewed wanted to contribute to “the world beyond themselves and their families, to feel and be useful, to add value and be valued.” They needed to do more than entertain themselves in retirement. What I’ve learnt is that fulltime paid work is not the only way to satisfy this need to feel useful beyond the circle of the family. If you don’t need the money – and that’s a big if – whether you’re paid or not is less relevant than feeling valued for your skills.

The research on retirees shows most are happy with life, especially if it was their choice to leave work. I’ve written before on the bad rap retirement can get. Some people grab the chance to create a new life post-retirement. Their self-esteem is not bound up in work. And we have to question the virtue of working into your 80s rather than say, taking time to read, reflect and enjoy yourself.

But like Renata, I believe the women – and men – of my generation want to feel useful, stimulated and valued. It’s not always easy, the way society is structured, to satisfy those needs outside of work. So think hard before you go.

I’d love to hear your view on this vexed issue. Please leave a comment.

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