The two sides of retirement

Posted on March 24, 2017 by Eleanor McKenzie
Mature teacher

Over recent weeks, the Guardian newspaper has been running a nine-part series of special features on retirement in Britain and the one that particularly caught my eye was titled: “Work till you drop: when will you retire and do you want to?” I think I was feeling rather tired that day and would have been delighted to swap hours at my desk writing for a morning walk with my newly acquired rescue dog Safira –or Safi the Staffie as she’s becoming known – followed by a coffee in a local café, perhaps sneak in a bit of lunchtime TV and then decide what to fill the rest of the day with.

However appealing this leisurely day sounds, I know that it would only be a matter of a couple of weeks before I started to feel that I wasn’t doing anything. And what this article highlighted for me is the fact that there are people who really want to keep working and there are those who are desperate to retire, and whilst we may think there is a genuine choice available to us, that isn’t quite the truth.

Employers face a demographic dilemma

Amelia Hill, the journalist who compiled the Guardian article found that some employers are seeing the benefits of keeping on an ageing workforce as she talked to 60-year old Ann White, whose employers offered her a retraining course at the age of 55. She had always assumed she’d retire at 60. Instead, the company paid for her to get NVQs and at 58 she moved from the factory floor to management. All thoughts of collecting her pension and sitting at home are gone.

It sounds like this Midlands-based business is very enlightened, but its managing director admitted that it didn’t have much choice in the matter if it wanted to maintain a full complement of workers. He told Amelia Hill, “The average age of our employees is 44 and a half. Almost 40% of our workforce is over 50. We struggle to get younger people to work here so if we don’t look after our older workforce and harness their skills, we’re just – frankly – being foolish.”  And it’s not something only his company is facing. According to official statistics, between 2012 and 2022 “an estimated 12.5 million jobs will become vacant as a result of older people leaving the workforce. Yet only 7 million younger people will start working to fill them.” It may also be true that these jobs won’t attract younger people either, or they won’t have the requisite skills to fill them.

This is great news if you don’t want to retire. Knowing that Britain’s employers may need us over 60s when it comes to the crunch, gives me a certain feeling of smug satisfaction. I, and others, may be happy to keep on working, and I have to say that when you work from home it does ease the issue of keeping up the ‘office’ hours when you’re ageing. So, I realise that I speak from a privileged position. The downside is the economic insecurity that comes with self-employment. But, you can’t have everything.

Not all employers embrace the older worker

However, despite this need to retain an older workforce, and by 2020 one-third of the workforce will be over 50, there are at least one million workers who have been pushed out of their jobs prematurely, “through age discrimination, caring responsibilities or health issues.” There is an economic reason to stop this. Additional tax revenues for the country and businesses benefit as well: “McDonald’s, for example, reports 20% higher performance in their outlets where workers aged 60 and over are employed as part of a multi-generational workforce.”

The government has just launched a scheme aimed at changing employers’ perceptions of an older workforce so that businesses can adapt to the changing demographic. But, at the moment, “more older people are becoming jobless than finding work and 40% of employment claimants are over 50.” One of them, Philippa, who responded to the Guardian’s request for people to interview is somebody who wanted to work until she’s 70 but was made redundant at 57 and hasn’t found work since despite being experienced in investigating corporate financial crime. I imagine there aren’t too many people qualified for that.

But, there are those who welcome retirement, especially those who have worked all their lives in physically demanding jobs, but raising the pension age has prolonged their need to work. It’s a complex dilemma for many people, but at last it seems that commerce and government is catching up with the reality of an older working population: there are those who want to work until they drop, and there’s those who don’t. Hopefully, everyone can get the retirement they want.

by Eleanor McKenzie

Eleanor McKenzie is a Northern Irish writer with a passion for art, literature, and red wine. She's worked at advertising agency JWT, edited a journal for a European social policy think tank and tried to teach teenagers the difference between "there" and "their". Being 50+ has not significantly changed Eleanor's life, although she finds it a handy excuse when she wants to avoid anything too energetic.