Working late

ANNIE WAS WORKING as a secretary when she turned sixty, a milestone she’d always regarded as her retirement age. Although she could have coped financially, she found she wasn’t ready to retire: ‘I felt there were still things that I needed to do out there, that I still had quite a bit to offer in the workforce.’ She took on several part-time and casual jobs: after-school supervision, administration for a short-term project, setting up her house for international homestay students.

Annie is one of an increasing number of Australians who have decided to work into older age. In a recent Australian Bureau of Statistics survey of working adults aged forty-five or more who had a retirement age in mind, almost half said it would be between sixty-five and sixty-nine years, and close to one-fifth wanted to go on working until they were seventy or older. Furthermore, over six hundred thousand reckoned they’d never retire.

Despite the general perception that most people are anxious to escape the rat-race as soon as they can, these figures from the ABS show that attitudes to retirement are changing. The 2008 global financial crisis and its aftermath have kept some people working for longer, because, as American poet Ogden Nash said, ‘If you don’t want to work, you have to work to earn enough extra money so that you won’t have to work.’

On the other hand, improved health and its partner longevity, also mean that the ‘third age’ of life (beyond schooling and working) is gradually increasing. More people are living into their eighties and beyond, and are often looking for something to fill that twenty years or so beyond what used to be ‘retirement age’. Regrettably, life expectancy is nowhere near as high for many of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population.

A US study found that the reasons people continue to work vary with age. Those aged fifty-five to fifty-nine primarily mention economic reasons. This is also a strong motivator for those between sixty and sixty-five, but this group also want to stay active and engaged, and do meaningful work. The priorities change again for those from sixty-six to seventy and still in the workforce: the majority want to stay active and engaged; doing meaningful work is their second priority; and third in importance is social interaction with colleagues. In other words, as workers age, money becomes less important (especially if the mortgage is paid off), but staying in touch with work and colleagues is important. 

In Australia, although there are still many people who dream of retiring to play golf, go fishing or pursue the grey nomad life, increasing numbers are looking for constructive and stimulating ways to fill what used to be their retirement years. A national survey of almost a thousand Australians who retired but went back into the workforce found that the motivation was not primarily financial, but rather it was social contact and the opportunity to pass on their knowledge to the next generation. Some said they also went back because they hadn’t achieved everything they wanted to at work. 

Boredom is also a great motivator. In the ABS survey mentioned earlier, amongst the almost two hundred thousand Australians who had retired from the labour force, but were either back in work or were planning to look for re-employment, boredom was second to financial need as the reason for the move.

HARRY IS ONE who found he had retired too soon. At fifty-five, after more than three decades in the classroom, he decided he’d had enough and took a redundancy. His wife continued to work, however, and Harry soon found himself at a loose end. He caught up on some of the reading he’d always intended to do, but after several months life had become boring. One day it occurred to him that he could make a better contribution to the world by volunteering at a local school to help students with their reading. When he submitted his CV, however, he was told that they didn’t have any places for volunteers, but would he be interested in some casual work as a supply teacher?

Since then, Harry hasn’t looked back. The casual teaching work gradually extended to four days a week and he had to resist the principal’s urging to go full-time. He teaches across the school’s primary and secondary divisions and says that because he isn’t a threat to the other teachers, some of the younger ones treat him as a mentor. What’s more, the additional income allows him to support charities more generously.

Those who’ve been able to find re-employment after retirement are the fortunate ones. Many people who leave employment in later life, whether through forced redundancy or by their own choice, often find it difficult to obtain another paid job. The ABS reported in 2013 that among those aged forty-five or more who were seeking work, a fifth said they were regarded by employers as too old and a similar proportion were told there were too many applicants. This may be a mask for age discrimination, which is now outlawed in Australia except in a couple of particular occupations in some states.

The CEO of National Seniors Australia, Michael O’Neill, said that some employers circumvent age discrimination laws by using recruitment agencies to screen applicants, use code words, such as ‘overqualified’, and phrase their advertisements to imply they want a younger person. The extent of such discrimination is highlighted in a 2013 report of research by the Australian Human Rights Commission, which found that around ninety per cent of those surveyed believed there is age discrimination in the workplace. One over sixty-five told the Commission: ‘Many people don’t disclose their age in the workplace, because they know that others may make presumptions about what that person might be thinking or doing...there are others who modify their age.’

Despite the discrimination, an increasing number of adults continue to work into older age, including those who have developed ‘encore careers’, a term coined by American author Marc Freedman in 2007, to describe a new career after the main mid-life vocation. An encore career is typically adopted in what was once retirement, builds on previous knowledge and skills, but heads in a new direction.

The late Bryce Courtenay developed an encore career as an author, after working in advertising. He was fifty-five when he wrote The Power of One (Heinemann, 1989), and said to himself at the time: ‘Well, you know I’ve always wanted to do this. Let me have a go. I’ll probably fail, but what the hell.’ The book sold millions of copies, and established Courtenay’s writing career.

Passion built on experience seems to be a key to a successful encore career, according to Freedman: ‘Successful late-blooming entrepreneurs weave together accumulated knowledge with creativity, while balancing continuity with change, in crafting a new idea that’s almost always deeply rooted in earlier chapters and activities.’

FREEDMAN THINKS IT is more about reintegration than reinvention, which explains why becoming a consultant is an appealing encore career for some professionals. A consultancy role not only builds on knowledge, skills and understanding developed over mid-life, but also has the potential to allow more autonomy and flexibility. Nevertheless, being a consultant may also mean a more precarious existence. Andrea Coutu, editor of Consultant Journal, said that when you become a consultant, you have to be prepared to forego the level of organisational support you were probably used to, as well as the moral and creative support of colleagues. 

A consultancy is a form of small business, another avenue to an encore career, and a direction that Roger took when he suddenly found himself redundant following a company takeover. With more than thirty years in administrative roles with a major newspaper chain, Roger’s ‘separation’ came as a surprise and, with no formal qualifications, he soon discovered he was not well positioned for another job.

After a couple of false starts, he chanced upon a new business, as a licensee of a suburban post office, where he was responsible for his own success. From his previous work, he knew the importance of a strategic location for a retail business, and he could read a balance sheet, but still he hesitated. ‘You’re putting your big dollars on the counter and then thinking, well, is this going to work?’ he said.

Finally, he made the move and found a satisfying career, in which he was the boss. After more than fifteen years, he sold the business so that he’d have more time to play golf, but also hoped he might pick up a day or two a week as a relieving post office manager.

TRANSITIONING TO FULL retirement through part-time work is a popular option for older workers, with a higher proportion of part-timers in the over sixty-five age group than amongst those a decade younger. As the first wave of so-called Baby Boomers reached their mid-sixties, not only were they in the workforce longer than they’d expected, but they were more likely to be working part-time and most were happy with the number of hours they worked. 

Among the reasons older people tend to move into part-time work is that they have paid off their mortgages, and so can survive on a lower income, or they prefer to have less responsibility, while others like the opportunity not to work five days a week full-time as their bodies begin to slow.

Frank is one of those who decided that, after twenty years of running his own tiling business, established when he was in his forties, his body was telling him it was time to scale back. Fortunately, he’d been building his superannuation up. In his early sixties was able to access some of those funds and supplement them with small jobs that come through word of mouth and an occasional letterbox drop. His wife works three days a week as a sales assistant, and every so often they head overseas for a few weeks. 

For Frank, it’s a nice balance, but the impact of the ageing process is different for each person and uninformed views give rise to myths – sometimes accepted as fact by older people themselves – that support general discrimination. Such attitudes may lead to capable people not being allowed to work into older age.

On the other hand, there are older workers who want to leave the workforce as soon as they can afford it, especially those in physically hard jobs. University of Tasmania researchers found that although 80 per cent of Baby Boomers surveyed expressed a preference for phased retirement, on an industry basis the percentage of labourers who wanted to stop completely when they retired from full-time work was three times that of managers and administrators.

Dick Whitehead, a Construction, Forestry, Mining and Engineering Union official, said in 2010 that by the time labourers reach sixty, ‘they are literally falling to bits’, which helps explain why they may want to get out of the workforce. In contrast, a research study in 2011 found white-collar workers generally did not perceive personal discrimination on the basis of age.

Industries with the highest proportions of older workers are the ones most likely to be affected by the loss of knowledge and skills as experienced members retire. These include agriculture, forestry and fishing, and education and training, where more than half the workforce is over forty-five, closely followed by health care and social assistance, and transport and logistics. The lowest proportions of older workers are in hospitality and retail, probably because those industries rely heavily on young people in part-time and casual positions.

GOVERNMENTS IN THE countries where populations are ageing, however, are encouraging as many older workers as possible to stay at work, because the demographics have implications for welfare and health budgets, as well as productivity. In Australia, the number of people aged sixty-five and over is projected to more than double by 2040, from just over three million people, (14 per cent of the population) to almost seven million (20 per cent). At the same time, the proportion of people under fifteen is expected to decrease, because of falling fertility rates.

In recent times, successive Australian governments have developed policies to encourage older workers to stay at work, to use their knowledge, skills and experience and at the same time reduce pressure on the welfare budget. More directly and less benignly, in 2009 the then Labor government announced that the minimum pension age for both males and females would increase gradually to age sixty-seven by 2025. Its successor, the Liberal–National Party government, in its 2014 budget increased the pension qualifying age to seventy years, to be reached in stages by July 2035.

The government also introduced an incentive payment to employers who hire a job seeker (including those on the Disability Support Pension) aged fifty years or over who has been receiving income support for at least six months. The full payment will be staggered over a two-year period, which may make it less attractive to employers. In any event, such an incentive will be effective only if existing jobs are maintained and new ones created and age discrimination is tackled. Furthermore, the government needs to give greater policy recognition to the desire by many older workers to move into part-time work. Transition-to-retirement schemes, in which one option is to cut down working hours while maintaining the same level of income through accessing superannuation, is a step in the right direction. On the other hand, the Australian government’s abolition in 2014 of the mature age tax offset, which had allowed eligible older people to earn more income before they paid tax and the Medicare levy, seems a retrograde step in encouraging people to stay in the workforce.

The potential impact of later retirement on government coffers is considerable, apart from easing the pressure on the welfare and health budgets. A report by National Seniors Australia in 2009 estimated the economic contribution of Australians aged fifty-five or more and working full-time at almost $60 billion dollars a year. The report says says that not using the skills and experience of older Australians, who are not in the workforce but seeking work, is costing the nation close to $11 billion annually.

Working into older age is a more complex issue than the economic argument. On the one hand, retirement age can be dependent on individual circumstances and motivations, while on the other it may be controlled by attitudes and practices of employers and shaped by government policy. For those not seeking remuneration, the perceived benefits of meaningful engagement and cognitive and social stimulation, may be met just as well by carefully chosen volunteering.

Nevertheless, government policies to encourage older people to stay longer in the workforce are developing at a time when the Baby Boomer generation has already begun to reach the traditional retirement age. As they come to recognise their increasing longevity and realise that their cognitive and physical decline is generally not as rapid as they feared, boomers are often looking for meaningful activities in the third age of life that will make use of their years of life and work experience.

Generally, more highly educated than previous generations, some of them will find these activities in casual or part-time employment, others in ‘encore careers’, including in small business or volunteering. Still others will want to continue working, but will be stymied and frustrated, sometimes by health considerations, more often by age discrimination.

When it comes to working, it seems there is a new spirit of endeavour among the Boomers, and an increasing need for finding meaning in their lives as they move into older age. William, a computer repair technician aged sixty-six, summed up the prevailing feeling among a significant number of his peers: ‘I just think I’d hate to be on my death bed and thinking, bugger, I wish I’d had the guts to do something.’ 

All the personal stories in this piece are true; names have been changed for privacy reasons.

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