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Retirement is not for bludgers

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 to 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.

 

Adele Horin was the social issues journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald for 18 years prior to her ‘retirement’. This article was first published on Adele’s Coming of Age blog (adelehorin.com.au), and is reproduced with her permission.

4 Comments
Jo
February 23, 2018

We enjoy our early sixties retirement as a couple. We both worked long and hard with relish. Two tertiary educated, employed children achieved. We purchased a smart compact motorhome, joined affiliated clubs, volunteer once a week, travel overseas living like a local, walk, catching local bus and trains, eat drink/ local .... great experience ... Love travelling and mainly free camping Australia ... I call it the Third Act of our lives ... one and two were good .... this third is great .... ‘tread your own path’ look forward and enjoy THE day

Keith
August 07, 2015

I am 64 and worked in Telecommunications for 46 years until 18 months ago before taking a voluntary redundancy. I really enjoy the freedom I have now in being able to start and finish projects around the house at my own leisure as well as travel interstate on a whim using bus and train if I want to. I have regular medical check-ups, walk the dog and get plenty of exercise. I still get up at 6am as I did when I worked full-time. I even have time to read books in the winter time.

Life has never been so good !

Gordon
October 27, 2014

I am 58 and am working for myself but now that my children have moved out, I am really enjoying having the freedom to work on a project I have chosen to work on rather than having to work just to pay the bills. So its that freedom and the freedom Adele speaks about in the article where she observes that we no longer have to compete or feel we have to achieve to meet other peoples expectations.

We are also fortunate to be aware of the importance of keeping fit and healthy. At 58 I don't feel old at all.

Rosemary O'Connor
October 24, 2014

Hi Adele

Your article raises some really important points. Yes, many of us have been very fortunate and are now in a position to make a difference in so many areas. I see too many people in my age bracket (early/mid 60s) in traditional retirement who appear to do virtually nothing with their lives. Boredom is the enemy, often leading to depression and other illnesses. This time of our lives is such an opportunity to give back, and to keep learning. There are heaps of great organisations that need and value mature, experienced volunteers. Fortunately, traditional notions of retirement are waning and 'encore careers' are more common, with wide ranging benefits to individuals and the wider community.

Rosemary O'Connor
Director
Encore Careers Australia

 

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