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Deborah Gale
Gerontologist and research fellow at the BioCentre on Ethics in London
Deborah Gale

Living in the age of no retirement

Authors: Deborah Gale

03 November 2014

The last of the baby boomers turns fifty in 2014. This huge cohort is said to have defined the modern age. Not only have the first teenagers come to an advanced age, they are likewise crossing into a different time to grow old. Unsurprisingly, their retirement experience is also turning out to be very different.

While it is misleading to generalise about anyone over 50, traditional retirement for leading edge boomers (born 1946-1955) was broadly accepted as the norm. The situation is markedly different for trailing edge boomers (born 1956-1964), where any expectations of retirement at 65 have been systematically dismantled.

At the same time, longevity estimates have gradually been increasing. The mismatch between retirement expectations and the realities of living an additional 30-40 years, potentially more than half of an adult life, has not been seriously acknowledged.

This was the challenge laid down by the organisers of 'The Age of No Retirement' event which ran from 1- 2 October 2014. Over the course of two days 27 provocations, 120 provocateurs, 200 plus debaters and a sold out audience came together to address the requirements and 21st century complexities of the ‘age of no retirement’.

We're talkin' about a revolution but while the assembled revolutionaries attacked the retirement conundrum with gusto, there is a limit to what can change, at present. Dr Ros Altmann, newly appointed government champion for older workers, opened the conference with a call to rethink later life and recognise this group as the economic engine of the future. Similarly, Baroness Sally Greengross, of the International Longevity Centre, commented that businesses face serious shortages of labour in the near future and new ways to engage older workers who want to work later alongside those who have to work later will be necessary in order to build an inter-generationally connected society.

Lord Geoffrey Filkin of the £50 Million lottery funded Centre for Ageing Better, spoke of the overarching need to prepare for retirement, potentially a time of no income, by focusing on personal health, building on existing capabilities and new abilities, while simultaneously maximising the psycho-social dimensions that will support a better, later life. There was no denying that poor health, poverty and mental frailty are key factors that will 'ruin' ageing for many. But, leaving these issues aside, unless companies come up with concrete opportunities to retain, retrain and reinvent these would-be-retirees and until these changes are demanded by the cohort itself, nothing much will really change.

In the meantime, reconfiguring jobs and reconsidering employment options is hard work, for everyone. And as attractive as the so called "portfolio career" might sound, that kind of flexibility assumes a great deal of choice; something else that is in short supply as this cohort ages. In the same way that ageing is not a homogeneous process, ageing is very unequal and social inequality starts very early in life.

This is a big nut to crack but it's time to give it a go. Conventional wisdom suggests that the older you get, the less you have to lose. That thinking is untenable starting immediately. Value must be ascribed to every phase of life, from natural beginning to natural end. Conventional retirement has already been retired and the transition between midlife and serious old age is growing in importance. It represents an extension of the same subtle interplay between continuity and change that accompanied every other transition in life. The age of no retirement deserves careful consideration.

Conference organisers, Dr Jonathan Collie of Trading Times and George Lee of Commonland plan to publish their impact report in mid-November. Watch this space for actionable outcomes inspired by this incisive, dispassionate review of the no retirement megatrend. 


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