That’s for old people: why ‘retirement’ is a new swear word to Generation X

Whether the new generation of pre-retirees becomes work-free by choice or not, our generation is railing against the r-word and finding new types of employment

Despite the average age of retirement being 60, many people are choosing to work for years, sometimes decades, beyond the usual retirement age.

I was born in the 1960s and I’m now in my sixth decade but, oddly, I haven’t given retirement much thought. This could be because I’ve been self-employed all my working life, don’t have a pension and am probably, if I’m completely honest, a little too scared to think about it.

Or it could be down to the fact that I just don’t relate to it. Retirement? That’s for old people! Like many of my generation, I can’t imagine not working. None of us wants to dwell on our own decrepitude and isn’t that the only thing that’ll stop us from working?

But what happens when we’re made redundant at a time when we really should be reaping the rewards of all our hard work? How cruel to be pushed before we’ve even thought about jumping. Should we get straight back on the metaphorical bike or invest instead in a not-so-metaphorical mobility scooter? It’s a tough one.

A friend in her late 50s – an art editor at a small publishing company – has just been told she’s being made redundant after five years there, and is anxious about what the future holds.

“I can’t see myself getting another job now,” she says, “which is actually a bit depressing. When you’re older, it’s particularly hard. Being made redundant is very upsetting and doesn’t make you feel very valued.

I deal with being made redundant by telling myself that sometimes it’s good to get a push in life… that it’ll help me to move to the next stage

“I’d worked really hard for my firm. I deal with it by telling myself that sometimes it’s good to get a push in life… that it’ll help me to move to the next stage.”

Speaking to several contemporaries, I notice that the word ‘retirement’ clearly rubs them up the wrong way: a new swear word, borderline taboo. It does dredge up dreary images of grey-haired ladies in quilted anoraks tending wilting flowerbeds and hollow-eyed old men glued to daytime TV.

My art editor friend has other plans: she is planning to write a novel. She has a pension in place and will live off that along with the money she makes when she sells her house and down-sizes.

Not everyone has a pension or a house to sell, however, and only a few can afford to take early retirement when they are made redundant at this later stage in life. Many need to get straight back out there and find another job, something that’s often easier said than done, especially if you’re looking for a job with the same salary and status.

After a certain age, you just aren’t appreciated any more. I also found in my last job that younger colleagues could be quite patronising

Liz Jones, 61, an office administrator from Basingstoke, has been through redundancy four times, most recently 11 years ago. “I was 50 when I was last made redundant,” she says. “I didn’t have the money to retire, so I had to carry on working – it wasn’t an option.  

“I found a job but I didn’t really like it. I stuck at it for nine years but was so unhappy. As soon as the government made the changes to pension law [allowing people the option of taking some of it as a lump sum from the age of 55], I grabbed the opportunity, despite the fact that finances were going to be a struggle.”

Even though Liz has a much lower income now, she’s more than happy with her decision. “After a certain age, you just aren’t appreciated any more,” she explains. “I also found in my last job that younger colleagues could be quite patronising towards me – and towards other older workers. I’m pleased to have retired. Retirement is what you make of it.”

The number of over-50s being made redundant is steadily rising, with almost 40% of all redundancies now falling into this group. Ten years ago, it was the 35 to 49 age-group which was at the highest risk of redundancy – with 38% in this lower age bracket, and just over a quarter in the 50-plus group.

These days there are lots of companies I wouldn’t dream of working for. I’d much rather work for myself

Richard McEwan, 58, was working as an advertising executive when he was made redundant four years ago. He has continued working as a freelance consultant ever since. “Although I was alarmed when I realised I had to leave the security of my full-time job, I feel fine now,” he says. “I have a whole new way of working and it’s great. It doesn’t feel any less secure than my old job because any job now is totally insecure.”

McEwan also felt his age meant it wasn’t worth looking for another job. “Companies tend to shy away from hiring us ‘oldies’ because, much as we think we can take the terrible hours for terrible pay that young people tolerate, it’s not that easy. It actually rubs both ways: these days there are lots of companies I wouldn’t dream of working for. I’d much rather work for myself.”

He has no idea if or when he’ll retire. “I don’t think about life after 65 at all really, but I refuse to be one of those old codgers, sat in an old people’s home, waiting for the Grim Reaper to come a-calling. I have absolutely no doubt I will die working.”

Richard is not alone. According to a recent report (commissioned by the Canada Life insurance company), one in seven over-55s don’t know when they will retire; 10% expect to retire when they’re 70 or over; and one in twenty do not plan to retire at all.

So despite the uncertainty of life today (never mind life in the future), Generation (e)X-workers, whether they choose or are forced to retire or whether they opt to ‘die with their boots on’, one thing’s for sure: they will not be like the traditional ‘pensioners’ of yesteryear. And, as far as they’re concerned, that’s no bad thing.

© 2017 JRP Group
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