As life expectancies continue to rise, many baby boomers, far from retiring, still look for meaning and engagement in their working lives. For some, the thought of retirement holds little appeal.
In his role as a certified financial planner (CFP), Alf Priestley has spotted a trend: His baby boomer clients are not very good at retiring.
“I have a 56-year-old client, a great leader, connector and communicator,” says Priestley.
“A US company made him an offer for his business too good to refuse and he thought, ‘Happy days, I get to have a life of leisure’.”
Things didn't quite work out that way. Just 12 months after selling up, his client was lacking purpose and direction, he’d stacked on weight and was tailing his wife everywhere, much to her frustration. She even spoke to Priestley about her husband's permanent presence, playfully calling him a “boring old fart.” Clearly, something had to give.
“His wife already had her social networks sorted out, but for him it was a complete shift. He was covered financially, so we took him through a process, clarified his values, what he’d like to stand for, what he’d want people to say about him at his funeral,” says Priestley, who prefers to run with the job title “ideal life integrator”.
"We need to change the way we approach retirement and encourage people to continue working."
Once the client was clear about what he wanted, his mind activated and opportunities knocked. He became involved in a number of start-ups offering expertise, mentoring and, in some cases, financing. He now feels valued, his skills are being used and, perhaps most importantly, his wife is smiling again.
For him, its Act 2, a second chance at life to do what he really wants to do, free from past obligations or expectations. A chance to deliberately design an ideal life, rather than just accepting what might happen by accident.
This is not an isolated case. For decades now, retirement has been routinely considered a time to travel, relax and have fun with family. While some are happy walking off into the sunset, others view retirement as a time to move beyond the conventional notions of work, raising the possibility of never retiring. Priestley has dubbed this growing trend “refirement”.
In his book Drive, business writer and contributing editor to Wired magazine Daniel Pink talks about using autonomy, mastery and purpose to get what we want. Priestley says that motivated boomers are well-placed to bring those same energies to retirement.
“Pink argues that there are three levels of motivation,” Priestley says.
“The first is biological, the basic sex and survival. The second is extrinsic, which he calls the stick and the carrot, what business currently relies on. The next level is where we have autonomy, mastery and purpose. Pink believes that we are beginning to motivate ourselves this way, more intrinsically.”
This leads to an enhanced state of flow, greater wellbeing and potentially our greatest contribution to those things that matter most to us.
As civilisation continues to evolve, Pink argues, we are now exiting the Information Age and entering what he calls the Conceptual Age.
“This will be a time when creative 'right-brainers' will drive and lead organisations,” says Priestley.
“I believe that boomers will be in the perfect position to contribute because of life experience, provided they don't put themselves out of use through their mindset. If they're willing to refire, here's a new area of motivation driven from within that they can exploit in the conceptual age.
“What you don’t use, you lose, and if we’re not using our creativity, our skills and our talents, we end up paying the price.”
The benefits of a new approach
That price could be the ultimate one. Recent studies suggest that keeping active promotes brain health and prevents degeneration. In 2013, researchers at the Institute of Economic Affairs in the UK identified “negative and substantial effects on health from retirement” with a significant increase in clinical depression.
“The UK government was concerned that if they pushed back the retirement age, it would negatively impact health. They might win in terms of [paying] less pensions, but the health budget could lose. It was a shock to them that the reverse was actually true,” Priestley says.
A French government study of some 500,000 people discovered that delaying retirement keeps the brain active, thereby reducing the risk of dementia. Researchers found that with each additional year of work, the risk of Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia reduced by 3.2 per cent. These numbers are significant considering that globally an estimated 47.5 million people live with dementia.
Related: Can you train the brain to be more productive at work?
“We need to change the way we approach retirement and encourage people to continue working,” says Priestley.
“It might be part-time or voluntary work, but it enables people to do what they love, and the health implications could be enormous.”
Baby boomers have their say
Today the retirement age sits at 65, but for how much longer? The Australian baby boomer generation (born between 1946 and 1965) is almost 5.6 million strong, and the population aged 65 years and over increased from 11.8 per cent to 14.7 per cent between 1994 and 2014. The ABS has projected this grouping to increase more rapidly over the next decade, and the Australian government has announced that it is moving the retirement age progressively to 67 by 2023.
It's predicted that 1.1 million Australians over the age of 85 will be alive in 2042, up from 300,000 in 2002. The average life expectancy in Australia stood at 82.10 years in 2012 with projections estimating that number to grow to beyond 100 by the end of the century.
"As a nation, instead of getting older, we should get bolder." Alf Priestley
This will clearly be a challenge for government. In a recent statement, Treasurer Scott Morrison claimed that the age pension is both a “safety net” and “a welfare payment for those who do not have the ability to save enough to fund their own retirement”. Our entitlement, perceived or otherwise, to government support in our advancing years is slowly eroding.
An ageing population is beginning to listen. A 2006 study concluded that 43 per cent of Australian baby boomers would consider working beyond the age of 65, while a 2007 paper calculated that 19 per cent expect they will never retire completely, or expect to “work until they drop”.
Priestley believes that government and private enterprise should embrace, celebrate and encourage older workers, confronting age bias and discrimination in all guises.
“Older people have the skills, the intellect, the discipline, the self-control and the wisdom to make controlled and calculated decisions. You could also mount a case that they are more valuable in being able to courageously exploring new creative frontiers, with less financial and family stress.
"As a nation, instead of getting older, we should get bolder.”
This is part one in a series. Part two: Good-bye gold watch - how mature-age employees are changing the workforce