Many professionals who are nearing what was once thought of as their 'golden years' are finding they are not ready to ease out of the workforce. They still have a passion for their careers, not to mention financial portfolios that require some tending.Alice Haine reports
When Peter Thornback moved to Abu Dhabi in 2001, he planned to stay in the UAE for two years. Ten years on and the consultant paediatrician, who works at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City, is still here. While it is not unusual for expats to stay for a long time, Dr Thornback is 69 and has no plan to retire in the near future.
"I always thought I'd work until 70 or 71 because I enjoy what I do," says Dr Thornback, who was born in the UK but spent most of his working life in Canada. "My father worked until 86 as a yacht broker and he said retiring was the worst decision he ever made. So I've got all sorts of plans and I will retire when I feel like it."
What keeps Dr Thornback motivated is not only the mental stimulation of working with an interesting demographic of patients, but also his physical interests, which include competing in triathlons, such as the recent Abu Dhabi International Triathlon, in which he was the oldest competitor.
Dr Thornback says his decision to keep working is mainly prompted by his passion for his work, but there is also a financial motivation.
The consultant, who helped to set up the diabetes centre at the academic hospital, says he was burnt financially in the mid-1990s and would have struggled to retire at an earlier age.
"I got scammed in a Bernie Madoff-style Ponzi scheme, so I lost a sizeable chunk of retirement savings and it was difficult to envisage retirement within a reasonable age," says Dr Thornback, a father of two and a grandfather of one who lives in a three-bedroom apartment on the Corniche with his wife, Liz.
The move to the UAE ensured the doctor could earn a higher income than in Canada, where he was paid on a fee-for-service basis.
"Liz had been trying to persuade me for months that we should be looking for a better way of earning," Dr Thornback adds. "I thought it would be nice to get into an environment like the UAE, where I could earn a decent living and not have to pay taxes. So I came over here, loved it and have stayed on."
Although Dr Thornback's "personal financial crisis" occurred some time ago, the recent global economic downturn has prompted many people to continue working past retirement age because their savings have been damaged by the fallout.
"There have been some big pension fund collapses and people make bad investments, and in their later years they find there is a big hole in their finances that they need to fill up," says Alexander McGeoch, the head of employment and general legal services at the Dubai-based law firm Hadef & Partners.
Those who need, or want to, can legally work in the UAE until the retirement age of 65, but professionals working in certain fields, including law, medicine and banking, can continue until 70.
After that age, Mr McGeoch says there are still ways people can continue working, including becoming an investor in a UAE-based company or by setting themselves up as a consultant in their field of expertise.
But why would anyone want to work past 70? After all, these are supposed to be the golden years, a time for people who have worked hard all their lives to sit back and reflect on their professional and financial achievements.
"For those whose pension arrangements have not worked out well or someone who has had multiple marriages, it makes sense to keep working past 70," Mr McGeoch says.
"And, of course, some people just want to work. There are some human dynamos who want to carry on and are reluctant to release the reins of power."
But James Thomas, the regional director of Acuma Wealth Management, says the financial situation for those who want to retire now is not as dire as it was during the economic crisis.
"Two years ago, their portfolio would most likely have been hit and people hoping to retire in October 2008 were looking at investments that were up to 50 per cent down. But now it's not such an issue. A lot of the funds have bounced back and a lot of those losses recouped."
Although Dr Thornback says working longer has ensured he has regained the losses he made thanks to investments in the Canadian dollar, property and international funds, his main motivation for working is not based on the state of his finances.
"That is not the definition of when I am going to retire," he says. "I had no desire to stop when I was 60 or 65 because I live by the old maxim that you are as young as you feel you are. I don't want to follow a rigid road map into retirement."
Susan Macaulay, the managing director of Strike Communications, a marketing communications agency, and Unleash Amazing You, a training and development firm, has a similar philosophy towards retirement.
"I want to keep working as long as I possibly can - until the day I die - I don't want to stop," says the 55-year-old Canadian divorcee who moved to Abu Dhabi 18 years ago and now lives in Dubai.
"To me, it's hard to say it's work because it feels more like play. I don't get up in the morning and do a nine-to-five job; I work when I feel like working and take time off when I want to, so there's no reason to quit - what would I do with myself?"
Ms Macaulay says although she has built up a sizeable nest egg, she has not contributed to her savings since 2008, when the financial crisis hit, because she has been investing money in www.amazingwomenrock.com, her not-for-profit website that aims to inspire women.
"I spend more than I make," she says. "My website does not make any money at the moment, so it costs money to run. Money is not my primary driver, though. My driver is to inspire women and give women a voice. But that's not how I make money and I'm not devoting enough time to my business because of the downturn.
"Up until 2008, my business had grown year-on-year for 10 years and then it crashed and it hasn't recovered yet, and part of the reason why is because I've been focusing more on my online philanthropic activities. It does worry me occasionally, but I don't really intend to retire because I enjoy working."
Although the gap between her expenses and income is not huge, Ms Macaulay says she hopes her website will begin to make money once the software has been updated to allow it to feature advertisements.
In fact, Ms Macaulay is so confident about her own financial security that she does not plan to put any more money into her savings. The businesswoman has a diversified portfolio in stocks, bonds, investment funds and a property in Canada that she is selling. She says she is happy with the investments she has made, but has to be realistic about how long she can stay here because of the expensive lifestyle.
"It's not a cheap place to live," says Ms Macaulay, whose biggest outgoings are rent for her two-bedroom apartment in Dubai Marina, travel and her Dh30,000 annual business licence. "If I want to live off the revenue streams that I think I'm going to be living from, such as writing books and coaching online, those activities are not sufficiently lucrative to pay for the lifestyle that I have thus far enjoyed in the UAE.
"But I don't think I need to save again now - I may be wrong in my assessment - but it's my intention to keep working. If I'm not able to keep working, then I may have a problem."
But Mr Thomas warns those nearing retirement that they need to be sure they have saved enough for their future.
"People are living longer and if you retire at 60, you may have to support yourself for up to 40 years. So either you save more while you can or work longer.
"If you feel you haven't done enough, the secret is not to panic because it's never too late to get your finances in order. And a person does not necessarily need to have a large sum of money tucked away. It all depends on how you want to live during your retirement. If you're going to live on a desert island, you won't need as much as the person who wants to carry on living the jet-set lifestyle, so it's about sitting down and assessing exactly what your needs are."
Although Ms Macaulay and Dr Thornback want to continue working as long as possible, Leen Vandaele, a 50-year-old business owner, would like to start easing back on her work commitments.
The owner of Squisito, a luxury interior design company, set up her business in her native home of Belgium in 1987 and her work has taken her to Europe, the US and Saudi Arabia, where she worked between 1988 and 1995.
"I would have liked to have slowed down by now, but the crisis made it impossible," says Miss Vandaele, who set up a Dubai branch of Squisito after moving to the UAE in 2001 following the sudden death of her fiancé, Frank, an engineer who collapsed and died on Valentine's Day in 2000.
"During the crisis, it was very important that people knew we were strong so we moved from a small office to a big warehouse in Al Quoz. But at times like that, people put things like replacing their curtains on hold and a lot of the big projects were stopped, so this definitely had an impact on us."
Miss Vandaele says although business has picked up this year, she is still very careful and has not yet set a date for retirement.
"I don't want to work until I'm 65, but I don't know when I want to stop - you don't know how you will feel," says Miss Vandaele, who has lived in her four-bedroom Fairmont residence since she arrived in the UAE.
"I can already feel a big difference between now and 10 years ago. I travel a lot and 10 years ago, I would fly through the night and come straight to the office. Now it is more difficult, I need to leave earlier and take a rest."
Miss Vandaele says she wants to stay focused on her business until it returns to its pre-crisis success, but is happy with her retirement savings.
"I have worked very hard and I have a little bit of savings, so I will be able to survive well after this," she says. "I also come from a good family, so we have some investments with the family holding, which means I don't have to worry. But you never know in life; if you lose the person you love very much, this is the worse you can lose. All the rest will come and go."