Sunday, March 31, 2024

Starting older’: Why we need a new word for retirement

We feel small in the best way: one in an endless tale of people who were once here and those who will follow after us ...

Can we really live forever?

In an age of remarkable scientific advances, three new books explore the prospects for living longer — and the challenges for human society

Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories 
We are on the verge of a breakthrough in anti-ageing remedies. Stretched out before us is a blissful vista where our newly youthful selves frolic in perpetual prime. The only cloud dampening our spirits is the knowledge that we have been standing on this verge for at least 5,000 years already — which is, frankly, playing havoc with my arthritis. 
As Easter celebrations remind us, the dream of defeating ageing and death is an ancient one — as too is the belief that victory is imminent. St Paul thought that the resurrection of Jesus presaged an all-out raising of the dead within his lifetime. Long before that, medical papyri show that the ancient Egyptians were working on an elixir of eternal youth (mummification was merely Plan B). Detailed records reveal that the first emperor of China, having unified that great land in 221BC, focused all its resources on achieving immortality.
Some might be tempted to see a great gulf between the magical thinking of ancient times and the methods of modern science. But this would be a mistake. For one, those civilisations were based on immense technical accomplishments in fields from metallurgy to medicine; their subjects had good reason to believe they were on the verge of further breakthroughs. Second, modern science is also replete with wild claims and false elixirs. In the 19th century, the Harvard professor Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard lauded the rejuvenating effects of injecting oneself with crushed animal testes; while the effects were entirely make-believe, his claims nonetheless helped launch endocrinology, the study of hormones. In the latter part of the 20th century, the double Nobel Prize-winning scientist Linus Pauling claimed that megadoses of vitamin C were a cure-all, briefly giving false hope to thousands.
So could the 21st century be different? Three eminent academics argue that it might. Indeed, scientists do not come much more eminent than Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, a professor at my university, Cambridge, who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on ribosomes, the tiny parts of cells that make proteins. His new book, Why We Die, is a wonderfully readable introduction to anti-ageing research, spicing up the science with vivid analogies and potted biographies of the real people behind the discoveries. 
Similarly, How We Age by Coleen T Murphy, director of Princeton University’s Paul F Glenn Laboratories for Aging Research, provides a lucid and detailed overview of the field for a more advanced readership. And The Longevity Imperative by Andrew J Scott, a professor of economics at London Business School, is a compelling examination of the socio-economic consequences of humans living longer lives.
All three authors lay out why this time might indeed be different. The field of gerontology (the study of ageing) has now emerged from its association with crackpots and ruined reputations to become a boom area. To a large extent, this is because it has been put on a much firmer foundation by many real breakthroughs in genetics and molecular biology during the past half century. As a consequence, anti-ageing research is now increasingly well funded ($5.2bn went into geroscience companies in 2022, according to Scott), with cash-rich start-ups poaching top university talent in a way that mirrors the AI boom of the past decade.
What gives most hope to optimists is the fact that it is now possible to reliably extend the lifespans of a whole range of “model organisms” in the lab. Both Murphy and Ramakrishnan provide fascinating accounts of the importance of work with yeast, fruit flies and mice. These species’ short life cycles — 40-50 days in the case of fruit flies — allow experiments that would simply not be possible with humans. Much of Murphy’s own research has been with the tiny nematode worm C elegans, which possesses only 959 cells (by comparison, we have more than 50 trillion). She explains how the discovery in 1993 that a mutation in a single gene could double the worm’s lifespan gave new hope — and credibility — to anti-ageing research.
Since then, one intervention in particular has been shown repeatedly to work across species: caloric restriction (CR), which can slow ageing and the onset of age-related diseases by 10 to 30 per cent in flies, mice and even monkeys. About as much fun as its belt-tightening name suggests, CR involves consuming only two-thirds of the usual calorie intake. Despite reported side effects that range from crankiness and brain fog to impotence and infertility, many humans are trying it out.
The race is now on to uncover exactly why caloric restriction promotes longevity, in the hope that the effects can be replicated without needing to live in a state of grouchy semi-starvation. One compound in particular is showing promise in mimicking CR: rapamycin, named after Rapa Nui (Easter Island), where it was first found. Ramakrishnan tells the extraordinary story of scientific serendipity, curiosity and perseverance that led to the discovery of this small but powerful molecule, a product of soil bacteria that was first developed for its antifungal properties. Rapamycin seems to flick the same protein switches as caloric restriction, but without the depressing diet. 
However, rapamycin is also an immunosuppressant, meaning that its long-term use could increase the risk of infection. This is a perfect example of the immense complexity of biological systems, and the countless trade-offs our bodies must make every day. Ramakrishnan and Murphy are both expert guides to this complexity, making clear how much we still don’t know, as well as what we do.
These surveys of the state of the art give the impression that breakthroughs for human longevity are not inevitable. But they’re also not impossible, given our increasing understanding of the underlying mechanisms of ageing. Average life expectancy has already topped 80 in many countries — which means half the population are living beyond that. In other words, longer lives are already a reality, and much longer lives are a distinct possibility. In The Longevity Imperative, an important and timely book, Scott argues that we need to take all this a lot more seriously.
The imperative, as Scott sees it, is to reshape our world so that as many people as possible can enjoy the benefits of longer lives. He is keen to shift the narrative away from that of “the ageing society”, with its connotations of ever more decrepit seniors dependent on a dwindling number of put-upon young workers. This narrative encourages already rampant ageism, he argues, based on medical models that define ageing only in terms of decline, and economic models that dismiss older people as unproductive burdens. Instead, he advocates for a “longevity society” that celebrates, and plans for, the fact that unprecedented numbers of people can expect to live for close to a century.
Realising this utopia requires people not only to live longer, but to stay healthy for longer. However, currently, the proportion of life we spend in poor health is staying steady as lifespans extend, or even increasing — which means that the absolute number of years suffering from age-related disease is going up.
The irony is that we already know what helps to preserve health: regular exercise, avoiding stress, eating well (plants and olive oil instead of beer and burgers), quitting smoking, staying sociable and so on. These measures aren’t as sexy as popping a pill that resets our inner clock, but they are proven to work, with no ill side effects. 
In what might be a sign of things to come, Murphy describes an experiment from 2009 in Albert Lea, Minnesota — the Blue Zones Project — aimed at helping people make just such healthy choices, including walking instead of driving and eating more veg. She notes that the city has reported millions of dollars in savings in healthcare costs, mostly arising from reduced smoking and obesity. The project has now been rolled out in other locations.
This illustrates one of Scott’s key points: the economic dividend of longer, healthier lives is potentially enormous, with lower health and care costs and greater productivity. He estimates a boost of 3-4 per cent of gross domestic product every year. But to achieve this we will need to make changes. For a start, the retirement age will either have to go up or be abandoned altogether. Longer lives mean either longer working lives, or spreading one’s lifetime earnings more thinly. Scott clearly favours the former, supported by investment in adult education and retraining, career breaks and jobs redesigned to suit older workers.
Still, a longer life of hard grind is not on everyone’s wish list. Ramakrishnan cites a Pew Research Center study that found over half of Americans thought slowing ageing would be bad. Many people have mixed feelings about the prospect of endless days ahead. Which brings us back to the Easter weekend. As we unwrap chocolate eggs in an ancient ritual of hope and renewal, are we really ready for what we wish for? 
Why We Die: The New Science of Ageing and the Quest for Immortality by Venki Ramakrishnan Hodder Press £25/ William Morrow, $32.50, 320 pages
How We Age: The Science of Longevity by Coleen T Murphy Princeton University Press £30/$35, 464 pages
The Longevity Imperative: Building a Better Society for Healthier, Longer Lives by Andrew J Scott Basic Books £25/ $32, 336 pages
Stephen Cave, director of the Institute for Technology and Humanity at the University of Cambridge, is author with John Martin Fischer of ‘Should You Choose to Live Forever? A Debate’
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Starting older’: Why we need a new word for retirement

Retire these days and you’re not so much crawling to a finish line as embarking on a new chapter. Is there a right time (given it’s not just about money) and what should you expect? We ask retirees for their insights.
 By Angus Holland
For some, the moment just arrives. “I’m done with all this” is how Judith Venables remembers her decision to retire from a productive career that included, at one stage, being a zookeeper. At 61, she was suddenly ready to leave her role in children’s welfare. “I just jumped ship,” she says.

For many of us, though, it’s not so easy. Deciding to retire can be agonising, raising multiple curly questions, not least these: what will you do all day? Will you lose your identity and sense of purpose when you’re no longer the chief executive of a bank, a school principal or (gulp) a newspaper reporter?
Indeed, while retirement might sound great when you’re in your 30s and 40s (and there’s an entire movement dedicated to retiring as early as possible), crossing that threshold later in life can be challenging. It’s not just about quitting your job, it’s about entering a whole new stage of life.
How do you prepare for retirement, if at all? When’s the right time to go? And how much money will you need? (Hint: that’s a trick question.)

So, when is the right time to retire? 

“It just got to the stage where I thought it was time to do other things,” says Lawrie Mann, who left corporate life when he was 66. “I’d also had some friends who had died while they were still working. One bloke, in particular, would have been so unhappy that he couldn’t do a lot of the things that he’d wanted to do after he retired because he didn’t ever retire.”
For one retired arts administration executive now in his late 60s, the pandemic was the deal-breaker. He liked his job but hated working from home during lockdowns. “I just got sick of it. And I had the money, and I wanted to do things that I wanted to do.”
Their experience is typical in Australia, where we tend to peg the “right” time to retire on the age at which we qualify for a pension – currently 67 for those born on or after January 1, 1957. Yet official retirement ages (defined as getting access to a state pension or being made to quit) differ greatly around the world. It’s possible to retire at 50 in China (for women) and in Cameroon (in special circumstances) though most countries with a pension offer retirement between 62 and 65; it’s now 66 in Britain.
And as people live longer and can work for longer, many places (including Britain) are raising the pension qualification age, and not everyone is on board. The French government’s decision to gradually increase the age from 62 to 64 saw protesters holding up signs reading “Retirement before arthritis” and “Leave us time to live before we die” (they were probably a little snappier in the native tongue). President Emmanuel Macron pushed ahead anyway, reasoning, “People know that yes, on average, you have to work a little longer, all of them because otherwise we won’t be able to finance our pensions properly.”
State pensions aside, the age at which you decide to retire is, of course, up to you. Few professions or trades have actual rules saying you have to stop work sooner or later. Greta Garbo retired at 35; Daniel Day-Lewis at 60; Morgan Freeman at 84.
Triggers to retirement – finally having enough money or being made redundant or pushing back against a job you no longer like – do not amount to a plan.
Joanne Earl, Macquarie University
Followers of the so-called FIRE (financial independence, retire early) movement believe that with diligent investing, you can retire barely into adulthood. “How to Retire in Your 30s With $1 Million in the Bank” read an article in The New York Times in 2018. To do so, though, you’ll need to start saving very young, live somewhere very cheap (like, at home with your parents), and, proponents say, aim to put away 70 per cent of your income, which might be a stretch (FIRE, unsurprisingly, originated in the United States, most likely with the 1992 book Your Money or Your Life).
“There’s too many people providing advice on the ideal time to retire,” says Joanne Earl, a professor of psychology at Macquarie University with a special interest in retirement planning. “Some will advise not to give up work too early because people that give up work die a lonely and premature death. There’s that sort of sentiment, and then there’s the other sentiment, which is, you should leave work as early as you can so that you can enjoy the rest of your life. It’s very much an individual choice.” Triggers to retirement – finally having enough money or being made redundant or pushing back against a job you no longer like – do not amount to a plan.
“I want people to take a much more considered decision about the exit point,” says Earl. “A lot of people will leave work and then try to get back in. And sometimes, depending on ageist attitudes and the area that they work in, that may be more difficult than they expect.” In 2020–2021, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 160,000 people returned to work having previously retired. The most-cited reason for doing so at younger ages was financial, but for older workers, it was simply because they were bored.
“It’s a complex time of life and not an easy change,” observes Julia Barclay, who has been retired for 20 years. Paul Gottlieb, who stepped away from a career in mining in 2021 when he was 75, is still figuring it out. His post-retirement travel plans were derailed first by COVID-19 and then by health issues. He hadn’t really wanted to retire: “I was never interested in golf, and I certainly wasn’t interested in men’s sheds.”

What is “retirement”, anyway? 

Half a century ago, retirement was straightforward: you’d ceased paid work, you were relatively elderly (life expectancy was lower), and you were now entitled to a few years of leisure: pottering about the garden, taking an afternoon snooze, maybe golfing if you were particularly energetic. For a handful, there might have been a gold watch.
But before the 20th century, retirement didn’t really exist, wrote Mary-Lou Weisman in the New York Times in 1999. “There were no old people. In the Stone Age, everyone was fully employed until age 20, by which time nearly everyone was dead, usually of unnatural causes.”
For most of recorded history the only people who could afford not to work, at any age, were wealthy landowners, pretty much born “retired”; everybody else had to toil until they dropped or took their chances on charity, Dickensian workhouses or family members. “Retirement is the unique creation of industrial society; in early societies, the old were only supported so long as they were able to be productive,” write gerontology researchers Mark Luborsky and Ian Leblanc in the United States.
There have been exceptions. In ancient China, officials in the Zhou dynasty (BC 1046-256) retired at 70; later, a word was coined meaning “retire” (tuìxiū), and there is evidence the officials could then expect up to 15 years of leisure, reading books and writing poetry (golf having not yet been invented). The Romans had a kind of proto-superannuation scheme: around 13 BC, emperor Augustus cannily began granting long-serving legionaries parcels of land in Africa or Gaul (ancient France, home to Asterix), both as a reward for loyalty and to ensure they stayed away from Rome, where they might cause trouble.
‘The word retirement doesn’t orient you towards what is really happening in your life, which is that you are still on average healthy, creative and productive, or can be.’
Prudy Gourguechon, American psychiatrist and psychoanalyst
The world’s first general pension scheme was devised by German chancellor Otto Von Bismark in the late 1880s (again, cannily, he put the qualifying age at 70, which few people were expected to reach). In the US, Union army veterans of the Civil War began to receive pensions from 1890 if they were 65 and not “unusually vigorous”. Australia followed suit in 1908, when the Commonwealth legislated a national pension in 1908 of 26 pounds a year or 10 shillings a week (a little more than a third of the wage of a female factory worker) for those 65 and over (later reduced to 60 for women).
To be retired was synonymous with being “old”: in 1908, Australian men had a life expectancy from birth of 55, women of 58.
These attitudes persisted. “When I’m 64,” sang the Beatles in 1967, “I could be handy, mending a fuse … doing the garden, digging the weeds, who could ask for more?” And ’90s-era TV comedy Seinfeld was full of retirement gags. “My parents didn’t want to move to Florida, but they turned 60, and that’s the law.” (Both Jerry Seinfeld, 69, and Paul McCartney, 81, have yet to retire.)
Today, though, we’re living much longer. In 1965, Australians could expect to reach 71, now it’s 83, averaged for men and women. Living to 100 is no longer outlandish. “Retire”, and you are not so much crawling to the finish line as embarking on a whole new chapter.
Prudy Gourguechon, an American psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, wants to get rid of the word altogether. “As long as we keep using the word retirement or any derivative such as ‘the new retirement,’ that whiff of withdrawal, of closure, of endings will linger,” she once wrote. Instead, she tells us from the US, she proposes “starting older, which is about starting a new and previously poorly defined phase of life, rather than focusing on what you are leaving.
“I just don’t think ‘retirement’ is useful, psychologically,” she says. “It doesn’t orient you towards what is really happening in your life, which is that things are changing in very significant ways but you are still, on average, healthy, creative and productive, or can be.”
Certainly, the definition of retirement – from the French a la retraite, meaning withdrawn, remote, secluded, retiring, out of the way – is well past its use-by date. The current generation of retirees – the Baby Boomers, the youngest of whom turns 60 this year – is far from “retiring”. They’re busy volunteering, child-minding, consulting, trekking, cruising, driving Ubers, organising events, running charities, populating stadiums for Pink and U2 concerts (Bono, note, is 63) and keen to stay involved. “Purpose” is their buzzword.
‘There is nowhere to hide from your fears and uncertainties when your brain is no longer engaged with spreadsheets, annual leave and lost socks. What is the purpose of a “full life”?’
Jennifer Ebdon
“There are myriad activities to explore, causes to support and new skills to learn, so my ‘do-list’ grows daily,” says Jennifer Ebdon, who loves her seasonal job helping passengers on and off cruise ships at Melbourne’s Station Pier. Still, she has pondered some aspects of retirement since leaving work two years ago at the age of 66.
“The yawning chasm of endless time terrified me, and I knew I would need some structure or I would be eating breakfast at dinner time and living in activewear,” she says. “There is nowhere to hide from your fears and uncertainties when your brain is no longer engaged with spreadsheets, annual leave and lost socks. What is the purpose of a ‘full life’? Is pleasing yourself a worthy goal? What is the end game? Why keep gaining skills if you are only going to take them to the grave? What is your value to society now that you are no longer a wage slave?”
Therese Goodacre, a nurse, is 62 and looking towards retirement in the next few years. She has always valued providing an essential service, she tells us. “For me, retirement means a bunch of empty space and potential loss of work-forged networks. I don’t want to fill my retirement hours with meaningless pastimes.” For now, she is volunteering at a nursing home to build her skills for post-career. “When I am no longer working, it is important to me that I continue to ‘contribute’. So I am in training to be useful, hopefully.”

Is it true that retiring is bad for your health? 

We’ve all heard about some poor sod who went downhill after they retired, and we’ve concluded that somehow the act of retirement, not just getting older, was to blame. This area has been widely studied, and the evidence is contradictory.
In 2014, the University of South Australia’s Dr Tony Daly published a paper that examined the findings of numerous studies into health and ageing. He found some studies that indicated retirees were less likely to report good health – both physical and mental. One study from 2012 on older Americans found that retirement negatively impacted cognitive functioning, with the biggest decrease immediately after retirement.
On the other hand, he found several studies that suggested retirement was good for you, including one from 2013 that relied on the large-scale Australian HILDA survey. Another concluded that it may be the degree of control that people feel they have over the retirement process that affects psychological well-being rather than the process of retirement itself.
As for the superstition that retirement could negatively affect your mortality, Daly noted two studies (one on construction workers and one in Norway) that found no connection between retirement and how soon you’re likely to kick the bucket; in fact, the Norway study suggested early retirement might be good for men’s health. “Despite contradictory findings,” Daly concluded, “the majority of researchers agree that it is not necessarily retirement, per se, that affects health, wellbeing and mortality.”
This seems to be borne out by the findings of a 2016 study into the health and wellbeing of some 25,000 Australians aged over 45. Overall, it found retirement was linked with positive lifestyle changes, including physical activity, diet, sedentary behaviour, alcohol use and sleep patterns. Lead researcher Melody Ding at the University of Sydney likens the transition to a New Year’s resolution: “A critical window where people mentally feel like, ‘OK, now I need to do something different about my health because I’m approaching the next chapter in my life’.”
‘The most important thing when you retire is to maintain your fitness. Because if you don’t do that, a lot of things you’d like to do in retirement, you can’t do.’
Michael Stevenson
Health is critical, agrees Michael Stevenson, who eased out of full-time work two decades ago to focus on his loves of amateur motor racing and sailing on Lake Macquarie in northern NSW. Now nearing 77, he can still do 70 push-ups in a single set (and was doing 100 not that long ago).
“The most important thing when you retire is to maintain your fitness,” he says. “Because if you don’t do that, a lot of things you’d like to do in retirement, you can’t do. The amount of exercise you do is probably not the important thing. The important thing is to do it every day, regularly.”
We inevitably lose some mental acuity as we age, particularly in the prefrontal cortex, which controls executive functioning, attention and working memory – and is therefore probably responsible for those forgetful “senior moments”. Offsetting this agility loss is what’s called crystalline intelligence, accumulated knowledge that is also useful in real-time problem-solving. Another study, from 2022, suggests this characteristic “shows gains into old age”. As in, as we get older, we get wiser. Who knew?

How should you prepare for retirement? 

OK, yes, a big part of the retirement decision is about the money. Key issues include whether you own your home, how much you expect to need and whether your savings (such as super), the pension or a mix of the two (subject to earnings and asset tests) will suffice. Sprinkle this with a lot of actuarial guesswork regarding your genetic predispositions to cancer and/or heart disease and the statistical likelihood of getting hit by a bus. The government’s MoneySmart site has a useful retirement income calculator.
‘The realisation that no one else will ever put money in your bank account is terrifying!’
Financial adviser Brenton Tong
Bottom line: you need enough, says financial adviser Brenton Tong, managing director of Sydney firm Financial Spectrum, “and everyone’s ‘enough’ is different.” Some people can live on $25,000 a year; others go through $20,000 a month. His broad advice for those young enough is to start planning now: compound interest works miracles if you start saving in your 20s, but we rarely do. Course-correct in middle age if you need to. By your 50s, Tong says, you should be in a position to take fewer risks and still grow your nest egg. He’s evangelical about super, which ultimately delivers a tax-effective income. And he warns: “For most of your adult life, for most people money is deposited into your bank account on a periodic basis – month after month. The realisation that no one else will ever put money in your bank account is terrifying!”
Get used to a life of budgeting. Julia Barclay says she and her husband were careful to seek out free activities when they retired. “I also learnt to say no to expensive suggestions,” she says. “It may be necessary to become more frugal. Make a list of the large predictable annual expenses such as house insurance, cars, rates, health insurance. It can be quite a shock to see how much is needed.”
Having enough money, however, is just one of the three main reasons why people actually end up retiring, says Joanne Earl, who has tracked ABS data in this field for a decade. The other two factors generally come unheralded: redundancy or health issues. (Caring duties can come into play, too.) In other words, plenty of people are suddenly retired without realising it’s happened. “I’m saying to people, now that you know this, can you be better prepared?” says Earl, whose team has developed some useful online resources for those eyeing retirement.
‘One guy I spoke with said he’s going to go fishing six days a week. You’d soon get tired of that.’
Michael Stevenson
“You need to be both financially ready and psychologically ready,” says Michael Stevenson. “The second is the harder of the two to come to grips with. One guy I spoke with said he’s going to go fishing six days a week. You’d soon get tired of that.”
“Luck and some good management” have helped Terry Kelleher and his wife, Julie, escape some pitfalls, so far. “Most people think they can retire in the home they have lived in for the previous 10 to 50 years,” he says. “Also, they assume a retirement plan of some kind can be delayed while they sit back and relax for a few months. That never happens, and months become years, and it’s too late. Then either the husband or the wife develops an illness, say cancer.” He was once a driver for community transport in the NSW Southern Highlands. “The repeated message I heard when picking up clients: ‘We left it too late to move’, and in most cases, they were right.”
Before you retire, think about what your social network will look like when you no longer have work colleagues, says Julia Barclay. “If possible, plan ahead, well ahead, a year or more, to develop new friendships, new hobbies. Suddenly, the weekly contact with large numbers of people will disappear.”
Judith Venables, however, doesn’t think you need a specific plan. “My view is that planning effectively relies on knowing what will happen in the future, which is something no one knows. We gather information until we’re ready to make our gut decision based on the information we have chosen to prioritise. So if we feel like doing it and it has a reasonable chance of success – go for it and deal with whatever comes next.”

How do you counter “relevance deprivation syndrome”? 

In Japan, they are known as nureochibazoku, or “wet fallen leaf”, reports The Economist. Friendless and devoid of hobbies, retired workaholic men “follow their wives around like a wet leaf stuck to a shoe”. We might experience it here, less poetically, as a feeling of worthlessness that can descend when the initial thrill of leaving work wears off. Who am I? What’s my purpose now?
Or not. “People said I would be bored, I would have relevance deprivation, but none of that has come to pass,” says Charmaine Moldrich, whose last role was as chief executive of the Outdoor Media Association. She retired in March 2023, so her “euphoria” may yet abate. For now, though, she’s enjoying working in a communal garden she started in her back lane, exercising, eating better, getting healthier, “Doing all the things I did in a hurry a bit slower and with joy – travelling, cooking, cleaning, decluttering, hanging out with friends, countless projects I have had on a list forever, babysitting, being more community spirited, and hopefully, very soon, grandmother duties.”
For others, the solution is to transition via part-time work, volunteering or building a “portfolio career”, with several small income streams but no single big-time commitment. Says Joanne Earl: “You could have two people, both of them working 10 hours a week, and one might describe themselves as retired and the other working part-time. It’s part of the identity that people have for themselves.”
‘I am no longer seen as Theo the school director but rather Theo the bike rider, photographer, cabinet-maker, father, grandfather.’
Theo Van der Veen
It’s about redefining who you see yourself as, says Theo Van der Veen, who retired from a senior education role at 58 and loves mountain bike riding. He was offered consulting work but realised a seismic change had already occurred in his life. “Your use-by date expires virtually on the day that you retire. My advice was about as welcome as ex-prime ministers weighing in on current political issues.” Today, he tells us, “I am no longer seen as Theo the school director but rather Theo the bike rider, photographer, cabinet-maker, father, grandfather.”
Bob Doyle, who retired at 60, took a less demanding job driving a minibus for children with a disability, leaving him with plenty of energy to do other things. He took up cricket again when he was 70. He tells us: “The one piece of advice I have not forgotten is that for the first 12 months or so, you will be on a high, but expect to feel deflated after that if you haven’t got some firm routines in place based on getting to finally do all those things you had to put on hold when working. More than 10 years after ‘retirement’, I’ve had two other jobs and started my own business. I’m now entering a different phase not involving work, but loving the possibilities.”
But a “pre-tirement” gig can be a mixed bag, warns Julia Barclay, “useful but also frustrating,” she says. “Professionally you are neither in an active position, regarded as an equal, nor available to be more spontaneous and enjoy the freedom.” She suggests, if possible, organising part-time work into blocks of full-time work and blocks of “not available”.
Indeed, after Judith Venables quit her career as a social worker, she tried another organisation. Although they were welcoming and the work was interesting, it just cemented what she already knew: “All the bureaucracy, the this and the that, I don’t really need this any more.” Now, she is a wildlife carer for birds, nursing the occasional tawny frogmouth back to health.
“Don’t just sit on your bum and wait for things to happen,” says Lawrie Mann, who enjoys sailing weekly. “Go out and make something happen.”
‘Make new friends. Hey, make new enemies. It gets the blood flowing.’
Alison Muirhead has had a positive experience volunteering as a Brisbane Greeter alongside her husband of 52 years, Ian. She retired from teaching at 56. “First up,” she advises, “pick a partner with the same interests as yourself. In our case, it has included Brisbane’s history, memoir and fiction writing, environmental volunteering and bird watching.” Note that our retired arts administrator warns there’s hot demand for volunteering roles. His advice is to set something up with your work contacts – before you retire. “We’ve got a lot of competition out there volunteering, with all of us Boomers out there and more coming online that are all wanting to do stuff.”
Meanwhile, Jeff Broderick, who retired from his job in the superannuation industry 10 years ago, keeps his rules of retirement simple: have something to do. “Wake up in the morning and not wonder what I will do today, but what on my long list will I do today? Be active. Golf, tennis, run, walk, Pilates. Whatever. Do it with other people. Make new friends. Hey, make new enemies. It gets the blood flowing.”