Politics

Rosemary Goring: Retirement is not for everyone

Few things bring me fully to consciousness before 6am, but a news bulletin about a proposal to defer raising the retirement age from 66 to 67 until 2051 did just that. According to this report, since we are not living as long as predicted, those of a certain vintage (mine in other words) ought not to wait an extra year before claiming their hard-earned reward.

A friend who reaches the jackpot birthday of 66 this spring, and has only the state pension to rely on, has suddenly realised she will need to continue working part-time to pay the bills. She won’t be alone in discovering retirement is not an option. Unlike her, I have seven-plus years before officially becoming a pensioner. Unless, that is, the authorities hold the finishing line at 66. In which case hallelujah!

Before then, the hurdle of turning 60 in late summer looms. There’s something about this landmark that inevitably prompts soul-searching. As a freelancer, the question of setting a date for retirement does not arise as it would if I were an employee. Nor is it a tempting prospect, even though friends are eagerly counting down to the morning when they can turn off the alarm clock and switch their stilettos for sneakers.

Not that I blame them. Until recently, after all, this was the age when working women stashed their briefcases at the back of the wardrobe and picked up their knitting or their grandchildren. Men meanwhile had a further five years before they could join them on the sofa, which never did seem fair.

Sixty, however, is no longer considered old. Even if our knees beg to differ, we are in a better condition, generally, than our grandparents’ generation at this stage. It’s noticeable, too, that scientists, novelists, artists, psychiatrists, and others, are just hitting their professional stride, even though they have entered what Old Testament scribes assumed would be the departure lounge.

Nevertheless, with so many years in the rear view mirror, who can afford to be glib? This milestone demands that you ask what comes next, and consider how best to use the time that is left. It might be decades, or it might not. The question is, do you really want to spend every day chasing a deadline, answering emails, pacifying customers or your boss, or might there be more valuable ways of embracing the future?

Journalist and broadcaster Huw Edwards, on reaching 60, has made his decision. “No surrender” sums it up. As he explains in a forthcoming documentary, he hopes to continue working until he is 80, or beyond. I’m guessing he doesn’t mean full-time, but I might be wrong. For some, the dread of retirement is such that they would rather slave around the clock than contemplate joining a bowling club or embarking on a world cruise.

Like countless others, Edwards recoils from the notion of clearing his desk. When eventually he leaves his role as the anchor of News at Ten, he says, “I don’t want to put my feet up and do nothing… for me the key to staying fit in every sense is to keep active and busy, and it follows that the concept of retirement to me is rather alien.”

Many sixtysomethings – I live with one – share his feelings. For them, the R word is taboo. By contrast, the French noun for retirement – la retraite, or retreat – is more sensitive. It was my father’s preferred description, since he liked to think he had merely taken a step back, rather than signed off entirely.

If people like Edwards have the energy, why shouldn’t they carry on working? Keeping the mind well-oiled is surely better than sinking into lassitude or sloth? And while certain occupations are not ideal for an octogenarian – the frontline of emergency medicine, say, or intergalactic exploration – I’m sure there are exceptions. Who, after all, could have imagined The Rolling Stones (or Bob Dylan) would be performing at 80? You have to be exceptionally intrepid to go on tour when hip replacements, stents and a trolley of pills are as essential as road crew. Some arenas, however, such as the BBC, are actively suited to elders.

As David Attenborough and Mary Berry have amply demonstrated, advanced age is no barrier in this line of work. On the contrary, their experience is an advantage.

Nor is it merely those in the public eye whose careers can be elastically extended. Anyone whose work depends primarily on their mind, and whose hours can be flexible, is in a position to defy expectations. So long as faculties are intact, there’s no reason why writers, architects, lawyers and others in similarly cerebral occupations, cannot continue indefinitely. Assuming, of course, that they can cope with jibes about care homes and zimmers.

Thankfully, barbed jokes could soon be a thing of the past. A recent tribunal suggests that ageism towards those within touching distance of their pension is no longer acceptable. When a civil servant in his sixties sued the Ministry of Defence for inquiring what his retirement plans were, while he was pursuing a grievance claim, the judge deemed this discriminatory. A man in his thirties would not have been asked the same question.

Yet no matter how much you love your job, deferring the traditional definition of old age is a privilege, rather than the sign of a superior work ethic. Ask manual labourers or staff on a production line if they’re looking forward to slowing down, and I doubt many will say they dread that day.

Increasingly, it seems, retirement is a two-edged sword. It is a luxury for those who can afford to stop earning entirely. Whereas for others, who cannot imagine winding down, not retiring is the ultimate status symbol. Far from indicating they still need the dosh, it shows their batteries remain fully charged, that they are forever young.

For me, clinging onto my fifties, the prospect of waiting years before officially becoming a pensioner is not the issue. Since I work from home and can take deliveries or let in tradesmen any day of the week, people already assume I’m kicking my heels. In their eyes I’ve been retired for longer than John Major. When finally it happens, I’ll probably be the only one who notices the difference.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of the Herald.

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