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Is retirement really the ultimate goal?
We need a new retirement continuum. A modern continuum of work and retirement should give us all a range of options and opportunities to choose how we engage with working and leisure as we get older.
Retirement has long been considered the ultimate goal for most people. “It's a time when you can finally relax and enjoy the fruits of your labour.” It's viewed as a period when you can stop work, focus on your leisure and hobbies, travel the world, and spend more time with family and friends. And it’s put forward as the only way of living your life after 67. But, the idea of retirement being the be-all and end-all, is a myth and I think it needs to be debunked. I think we should enjoy the journey towards retirement more instead.
I prefer to think about retirement as a continuum, a transition to a new stage of life where you have a level of financial independence and an interest in your work and you can ‘choose’ what you want to do with your time so that you feel like you are thriving. It might contain work you enjoy, hobbies you are passionate about, running a small business, and other, health, family and community maintaining activities too. But it can be far from traditional, and as you move down the continuum, you can pursue less work, and more leisure, over time, but don’t have to ‘stop’. And the only rules you have to adhere to are the ones that allow you to draw down your superannuation.
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The notion of retirement is relatively new. It became popularised in the early 1900s when governments and corporations declared that people had gone past their used by dates in their 40s and 50s. They introduced pension schemes designed to support people stepping out of the workforce before they were pushed. And within a few years of retirement, in the early to mid 1900s, people died. So retirement was a short period where people ‘wound down their lives’ quietly and got out of the way of the workforce.
Then people began to live longer (and by that I mean to 70 or 75) and work conditions became more difficult. Retirement was then positioned as a reward, a time for rest and relaxation after years of hard effort. The retirement age was raised, to 60, you still died at 70 - and you still left work quietly, with your gold watch, getting out of the way of the younger generations and heading out to pasture.
Then, we started to live EVEN LONGER, retirement age was raised to 67, life lengths grew to 88+ and lifespan science became super cool. And all of a sudden, retirement could last 21-30 years, and for all that time you are expected to ‘not work’? The idea of retirement being a time where you have to stop for rest and relaxation is outdated and no longer relevant in today's world I’m afraid. It’s time for us to reposition it again! Retirement should be thought and talked about as a continuum. We need to insert a varied stage of life here, where people can choose! In reality it’s already happening with more people than ever going into a part-time or semi-retirement for years before they retire, but there’s a lot we can do to change the definition and reality of retirement for young and old so it’s easier to choose your own adventure.
Imagine it - the perfect continuum.
The modern continuum of work and retirement should give people a range of options and opportunities to choose how they engage with working and leisure as they age - or work hard not to age as quickly. At one end of the continuum is traditional full-time work, where we work for 40+ hours a week until we retire into the next stage - and get on the continuum. As we move along the continuum, we have more options for part-time work, flexible work arrangements, and reduced hours, allowing us to take longer sabatticals, start a side-hustle, spend time with family without putting ourselves out to pasture. Eventually, we may transition into full retirement, where we no longer work at all. However, even in retirement, we should choose to stay engaged in our communities, pursue hobbies, or start a new business. The continuum is flexible and adaptable, allowing us to find the right balance of work, leisure, and purpose throughout our lives.
But if we want this continuum to exist, we have to debunk the myths and change some policies, look at the current generation of people coming into retirement and ask them what they want (What do you want? I ask below). And talk about and support working before and during retirement.
The first problem with the retirement myth is that it's based on the assumption that all people will have enough money to support themselves after they stop working for 20-30 years. In reality, this is not always the case, at least, not for another ten or so years when everyone has had the time to build super at higher percentage rates than was paid into it in the first years. Governments, facing a large worker gap, will ideally find ways to support the continuum, as an alternative to people stopping work and drawing the pension in its first years, if they want to get it going, or they have to wait until super balances on average, are larger in 10-15 years.
It assumes that people will have good health and be able to enjoy their 25-30 ‘golden’ years. While medical advancements have certainly increased life expectancy, they have not necessarily improved the quality of life for everyone and they certainly have not improved healthspans that much. Health problems such as chronic pain, dementia, and mobility issues can make retirement far from enjoyable if you don’t take the proactive steps to manage your health in your 40s, 50s and 60s. This is especially true for those who have spent years working physically demanding jobs. I think people want and need the ability to choose when they can opt into and out of work, or feel able to switch industries to those which are less physically demanding with support that they really want to access.
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It assumes that we will have fulfilling and meaningful lives after we stop working. However, for many, work is a significant source of identity, purpose, and social interaction. Retiring can leave even the most resilient people feeling lost, disconnected, and lonely. Even for those who have hobbies and interests outside of work, it can be challenging to find a sense of purpose and fulfillment in retirement. Dipping in and out of work, or continuing working, albeit at a lighter pace should be encouraged and talked about more, with people looking forward to a ‘portfolio life’ or a part-time retirement of sorts.
It's also important to consider the impact of retirement on society as a whole, where 28% of the population is over 55. As people live longer and retire for longer, there are fewer workers to support an increasingly ageing population. Who will care for the older, if the young don’t really want to?
So, what's the solution?
It’s back to growing that continuum. Rather than viewing retirement as the end goal, I think we need to start thinking about work and retirement as a continuum and encourage everyone who is keen and able to keep participating, on their own terms. Don’t you want the choice?
This means that as we get older, we should have the opportunity to transition into jobs that are less physically demanding and more flexible, and find more meaningful ways of contributing to our economy than retirement for leisure achieves. Employers need to be more open to offering part-time and flexible work arrangements for older workers, which can help them stay engaged and productive while also providing a source of income that leaves less people dependent on the pension.
Governments can incentivise employers to support the creation of a continuum by providing commercially valuable incentives like they do for mothers who just two decades ago, when I had kids were not prioritised at all. And we can help older workers to embrace the continuum by making it more worthwhile to work than it is to draw the pension.
In addition, we all need to start thinking about how we can continue to live fulfilling and meaningful lives after we stop working in full time work - and get our water-coolers, side hustles and passion projects set up long before we leave our primary workplace. This could mean volunteering, pursuing hobbies, working in a casual role or even starting a new business. It's very important for us all to maintain social connections and stay active in our communities, to help prevent feelings of isolation and loneliness and to help us live longer, better quality lives.
Retirement is no longer the ultimate goal for most people - living a life of choice is, so let’s build a continuum of working and leisure that lasts a lifetime, a retirement continuum. Are you in? After all, an epic retirement is one where you choose and find ways to live your most fulfilling life.
Until next week, make it epic!
Bec Wilson Xx
Worthy reads this week
More magnesium in our daily diet leads to better brain health as we age, ANU, Science Daily
Australians are ready willing and able to work - so let them! Daniel Wild, The Spectator
Financial Services Council calls for policy rethink to encourage retirees to spend their Super, Glenda Korporaal, The Australian
Six amazing books to read on modern ageing and longevity, Bec Wilson, Epically, the newsletter for the modern ageing industry
I just posted on notes, join me there
I just published my first note on Substack Notes, and would love for you to join me there! It’s the software that runs my newsletter, and they’re setting up a new, more intelligent social network, built around meaningful content and discussion.
Notes is a new space on Substack for us to share links, short posts, quotes, photos, and more. I plan to use it for things that don’t fit in the newsletter, like work-in-progress or quick questions.
How to join notes
You can also share notes of your own. I hope this becomes a space where every reader of Epically can share thoughts, ideas, and interesting quotes from the things we're reading on Substack and beyond.
Hope to see you there! Come for a chat
Calling for epic retirees or semi-retirees
I am building a panel of people who are navigating the retirement continuum, trying to find and achieve their best lives. I want to interview you, get you involved in the stories and build a community of epic retirees who are doing interesting things, navigating their lives of choice.
Please, reach out to me by email on Bec@epicretirement.net to join my panel! I promise it will be fun!