New young-old generation is proving retirement doesn’t mean the end
People are living longer, healthier lives and many remain active long after retirement
“The really frightening thing about middle age is the knowledge that you’ll grow out of it.” So said the late Hollywood actress Doris Day, who died last week at the age of 97 after spending the last four decades of her life largely out of the limelight. When she took a step back from showbusiness in 1973 at the age of 51, retirement meant just that.
Contrast that to the example set by the stars of The Kominsky Method, actors Michael Douglas, 74, and Alan Arkin, 84, who aren’t just enjoying a new lease of life in their golden years but addressing the issues concerning getting older in the highly rated TV show. “Ageing becomes one more prejudice,” Arkin told the Los Angeles Times. “You start thinking of people as old. If you start putting boxes around people, where do you stop?”
The idea of retirement – that is, government-funded support for older members of society – was first mooted by German chancellor Otto von Bismarck in the 1880s. Until then, you simply worked until you were no longer physically able to do so. His law entitled those over 70 to state support – a savvy strategy from the government because that was also the life expectancy at the time.
Today, we typically think of our sixties as the time we finish work and look forward to taking it easy. Retirement is seen as the finishing line after a long life of hard work. But until the 1950s, that finishing line literally spelled the end, because life expectancy in the Americas was an average 58.4 years, rising to 64.7 years in Europe.
Globally life expectancy has increased to 72 years today, compared to 60 in 1973, according to the World Health Organisation, but our ideas about old age are still stuck in the past. There is still an assumption those over 65 will quietly fade into the background. In Japan, the average person lives to 84, meaning some people could still have a quarter of their lives to look forward to after leaving the workforce.
This extended lifespan has led to what has been described as an “extended middle age”. As we live longer lives and stay healthier for longer, many are choosing to come out of retirement or being far more active than their predecessors.
There are mixed reports about whether retirement helps or hinders wellbeing. Research from the UK think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs suggested a deterioration in health after retirement, with 40 per cent of people suffering clinical depression and 60 per cent suffering from at least one physical condition.
But equally, forcing people to remain in the workforce is the wrong takeaway. It is far more important for people to remain plugged into society. Sadly, work is too often the defining factor in identity and self-worth, so it is little wonder there is often a decline in health in retirement. Work also forces a structure and social interaction upon us that keeps us engaged.
We need to change what we think of as retirement. It need not mean retiring from life, nor does it spell the beginning of the end. It is simply a new phase of life. Remaining active and engaged is vital.
Just look at some of the world’s richest people and the example they set.
Bill Gates, for example, retired at 58 but is still hugely active with his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and, if anything, has scaled up his public life. Singer Phil Collins, 68, has embarked on several farewell tours. His latest, called Not Dead Yet, has been going for three years, although two concerts had to be cancelled in 2017 when he tripped on a step. He is now gigging with his 16-year-old son.
We ordinary mortals should also start rethinking the boundary between middle and old age. As Day herself said: “Age is just a number.” Retirement need not mean an end to life as we know it; it could be a jumping-off point instead for a new opportunity.
Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World
Updated: May 24, 2019 02:45 AM