It used to be you retired at 65 with a gold watch and a diary full of golf dates. These days, if you’re not planning to work well into your 70s, you’re aspiring to quit by 30.
Michael the lawyer keeps needling me. He's been doing this since I mentioned to the guys in our ageing men's tennis team that I was leaving my job. "You're retiring?" he asked. No, I replied, not retiring. Just doing different things. The other guys didn't care. Okay. Whatever. So long as you show up next Tuesday night. But Michael couldn't let it go. Last week, he asked if I'd done any gardening. I pretended not to hear. Maybe because I had been in the garden that afternoon, enjoying some physical work while the dog mooched about nearby. Suddenly it seemed like a confession of failure. Nothing to do but dig some weeds.
The idea of retirement in Australia has been completely turned on its head.CREDIT:GREEDY HEN
Tonight our team lost again. We're used to losing. It bothers me more than the others, who are tossing up where to go for dinner. The local Italian? How about Indian? I opt for an early night; say I'm tired. Truth is, I'd rather head home than bullshit with the boys over pizza or poppadams. The others nod. No drama. But Michael leaps in. "This is what retirement is like. Doing nothing all day wears you out!"
This time, I bite back. "I haven't f…ing retired," I tell him, louder than intended. "I'm just doing different things. And you're starting to piss me off." Michael takes a step back, mutters something conciliatory. The others look embarrassed. We walk to our cars in strained silence, though conversation has resumed by the time keys are out. They're off for pizza. Bye. My blow-up is never mentioned again.
I drive home, seething. I feel like I've actually had a productive day. Before the gardening, I'd taken some sessions with school students in the city. It's one of the new things I've been doing that Michael doesn't even know about. There's other stuff, too. Piano lessons. Yoga. Philosophy classes. (Once, all three in the same day. Probably overdoing it.) Then I realise that none of this is the point. Which is why I jumped on Michael. His comments have raised a question I must confront: why am I so sensitive about the word "retirement"?
One reason is a bloke who lives nearby. I don't know him well – we've never got much past banal chats about the weather or footy – but he hasn't had a job for a few years. I suspect he might have been "let go". Or simply retired. He appears a bit lost, like a man chasing things to do. His bins go out earlier than before. Takes his time over domestic chores. He grew a beard, too, which was a mistake. It's all grey. Makes him look much older than he is. Like a slimmed-down Hemingway. Seeing him, I've opted to keep shaving.
Then there's the man I'll call Gary, with whom I worked over several decades. I left; he stayed. I caught up with him a while back. He said he felt under pressure at work and was taking medication for stress. The job was killing him. He had to get out. He did, months later. Then I saw him again at the funeral of another former colleague. He'd put on weight. His face looked puffy.
"Asked about life since escaping the office grind, Gary replied: 'I don't know what to do now. Wonder if I made a hideous mistake."
Asked about life since escaping the office grind, Gary replied: "I don't know what to do now. Struggle to find reasons to get up. Wonder if I made a hideous mistake."
This felt like another warning. Was this what happens when you move from full-time work to no work at all, or bits and pieces of stuff you call work? Is this what retirement looks like?
A financial guy had already talked me into a transition-to-retirement scheme. I'd focused on the transition, not the r-word. Skimmed over the bit where a payment was called a pension. But the fact was I'd gradually moved – transitioned – from a Monday-to-Friday job to a four-days-a-week-job, then to several smaller jobs, not all of which involved earning money.
During the four-day phase, Wednesdays were mine. For dog walks. Swims. Shopping. Cooking. Stuff. I loved Wednesday. It was a peaceful island in the midst of a fast-running river I had to cross every week. A place to take stock and not answer calls. But maybe Wednesdays were special because of what came before and after. If I had a week of Wednesdays, things would seem different. I could end up with a bad case of the Garys.
Perhaps I'm being unfair to him. It's possible he was just having a bad day at the funeral, which was a shocker. Too long, too many speeches, and a prevailing sense that we were there for a popular man who'd had a heart attack while riding his bike with mates. He was 51. Much younger than me. And still 14 years off what used to be set in stone as retirement age. That's how it was: you hit 65, retired, went off and played golf or got a caravan. Or a Winnebago, like Jack Nicholson's character in the 2002 movie About Schmidt, which explores what happens to Warren Schmidt after he retires from an insurance company.
Early scenes show Schmidt counting down the last hour of employment and enduring awkward speeches at his office farewell. Then he's hit by a double-whammy: the sudden loss of his wife and a lack of purpose. He takes off, alone, in the Winnebago, in what becomes a kind of oldies' road movie.
It makes poignant viewing now. Nicholson's last film came out in 2010. Since then, rumours have swirled about his health. In 2013, he told Vanity Fair he didn't consider himself retired, just less driven. Appropriately, About Schmidt came out the year Nicholson turned 65 – the age still linked with the r-word.
It's actually an outdated historical construct.
Appropriately, the film "About Schmidt" came out the year its star, Jack Nicholson, turned 65 – the age still linked with the r-word.CREDIT:ALAMY
In Australia, a government-funded retirement pension dates back to 1909, when it was paid to men from the age of 65. For women, the magic age was 60, from 1910. These pensions, to support ageing victims of tough times from the 1890s, included income and residency tests. They didn't represent a crushing burden for the government, as just 4 per cent of the population was over 65. Life expectancy was about 55 for men, 59 for women.
Today, by contrast, about 15 per cent of Australians are over 65 and life expectancy has leapt to about 80 for men and 85 for women. For any budget-conscious government, that represents plenty of potentially costly retirees. And they can be a cranky lot. Hence Prime Minister Scott Morrison's backdown late last year on the Abbott-era plan, from 2014, to increase the pension age from 67 to 70, starting in 2025. Steady increases in age eligibility would have seen it hit 70 by 2035. This was portrayed as a move by penny-pinching politicians to force honest folk to scrap retirement plans and work until they dropped. Doing his man-of-the-people impression, Deputy PM Michael McCormack told Sky News: "If you're a tradie or a brickie or a shearer in rural and regional Australia, you don't want some suit in Canberra telling you you've got to work until you're 70." Absolutely not.
Labor didn't protest about this as much as might have been expected, because it was under then prime minister Kevin Rudd in 2009 that the pension age was lifted from 65 to 67 (from 2017). Rudd's treasurer, Wayne Swan, acknowledged the move would never be popular, but justified it by saying Australia faced a "demographic time bomb". An estimated 22 per cent of the population will be over 65 by 2057. The Council on the Ageing (COTA) says 7.9 million Australians, almost a third of the population, are currently aged 50 or above. Of these, 29 per cent of those still working think they'll never retire. Not surprisingly, it also found that "the expected age of retirement increases as household income level decreases".
The importance of financial security becomes clear when I type the words "Retirement in Australia" in the online catalogue for the local library. The first entries include books about the future of property investing and keeping your self-managed superannuation fund simple. These books, not to mention Enjoying Retirement, The Retirement Living Handbook and Women and Retirement ("Challenges of a new life phase") are also popular. Most are already out on loan, with at least one reserve in place. Which is understandable. It makes financial sense to borrow a book instead of buying it. And libraries are popular with older people. Then again, how old is old?
Turning 50 is the first tipping point, a convenient age for headhunters making shortlists shorter, or managers trimming staff numbers.
It's when you're over 50 that you start to receive brochures about investments, superannuation choices and that once-faraway place called retirement. Not 60, when you may find yourself eligible for a Seniors Card (a tad embarrassing, but fabulous for cut-price public transport). Or 67 (thanks, Mr Swan), when perhaps you'll put your hand up for a pension. It's 50. Ridiculous. Ken Rosewall was still winning matches in tennis tournaments in the early 1980s, just a few years shy of 50. And the three main contenders in the 2016 US presidential election – Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders – were aged 70, 69 and 75 respectively. None are considered retirees.
he retirement age, incidentally, varies considerably around the world. In Japan, which has the world's highest average life expectancy (just under 84), incentives may be offered to people to postpone a state pension until 70. In Brazil, the average retirement age is 56 for men, 53 for women. Brazil has generous pensions – and a debt crisis. In France, the retirement age has been moved from 60 to 62; in Germany, it's 65 and seven months.
Just as the pension age is less fixed than it used to be, so is the concept of retirement. The titular character in About Schmidtstruggles to adapt. All those years behind an actuary's desk were not fun, but what now? And why is it that some capable people still face compulsory retirement?
Kenneth Hayne, who turns 74 in June, demonstrated impressive vigour and acuity heading the recent banking royal commission. He was able to take that on because he was deemed too old to continue sitting as a Justice of the High Court. Hayne had to retire from that job in 2015. Since a constitutional amendment in 1977, members of the Australian federal judiciary must retire at 70. The last judge not affected by this provision, having been appointed in 1976, was Justice Graham Bell. He retired from the Family Court of Australia in early 2015, aged 78, and took a swing at the new law on the way out: "These days, 70 is equal to 60 or 55 … Judges should be able to go on till 80 provided they pass a medical inspection … They are sent out to pasture too early."
Three of the nine serving Justices of the US Supreme Court, including the legendary Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 86, would be gone if the US had a similar law. Here, it means that Geoffrey Nettle, who became a High Court judge in 2015 at the age of 64 (the oldest-ever appointee), will hit the mandatory retirement age in late 2020. He will serve a maximum term of just under six years, which seems a waste of a fine legal mind.
It's possible we've been looking at all this the wrong way around. Instead of designating a retirement age, perhaps the question should be: how young can you get away with it? The devotees of a mantra called FIRE – Financial Independence, Retire Early – are reshaping ideas of what early retirement looks like. Forget your 60s; their goal is to bail out in half that time, or, in the case of J.P. Livingston, in your 20s.
"Instead of designating a retirement age, perhaps the question should be: how young can you get away with it?"
"I retired in New York City with just over $2.25 million when I was 28," she says on her website, The Money Habit. "I wholeheartedly believe that anyone can retire decades earlier than their peers." The secret, she says, lies in financial planning. (Luck and a solid financial base also help.)
The FIRE movement started in the US but has since spread globally through myriad blogs and websites. A father figure is Jacob Lund Fisker, a Danish former nuclear astrophysicist, whose Early Retirement Extreme blog began in 2007. Fisker summarises his philosophy as "a combination of simple living, anti-consumerism, DIY ethics, self-reliance, resilience, and applied capitalism". The baton has now been passed to Peter Adeney, a Canadian.
Writing as Mr Money Mustache, Adeney's ideas about very early retirement, which he achieved in 2005, age 30, gained so much traction that The New Yorker magazine profiled him in 2016. "Retirement, in his hands, is a slippery term," Nick Paumgarten wrote. "It doesn't mean playing golf or sitting on the porch. It is merely the freedom to do what he wants when he wants … He disdains the idea of spending another minute of his life in a cubicle in order to afford a dryer or a Tesla." The profile described Adeney using a woodworking vice to squeeze limes. His wife, Simi, was quoted as saying: "I've gotten used to it all, but he's a weird dude." Maybe too weird. Last year, a Guardian article about the FIRE movement noted Adeney's influence but reported: "He and his wife divorced recently."
Apostles of FIRE have firm ideas about what life should look like – and it doesn't include employers. (Children are seldom mentioned, either.) Many have come from the financial or technology sectors and are resting on a solid base. It takes money to make money, or even save money. And as appealing as the idea of ditching a boss in your 30s may be, the question, even more daunting than for someone in their 60s, is the same: what's next?
"As nice as the idea of ending work in your 30s may be, the question, even more daunting than for 60somethings, is the same: what's next?"
For J.P. Livingston, "a successful and happy retirement is about changing chapters rather than one static image of constant adrenaline and adventure". But Fisker could be running out of steam. In February, he diverted blog visitors to Bertrand Russell's 1932 essay In Praise of Idleness. Russell is an unlikely poster boy for early retirement. He died aged 97 and was still writing into his final years.
Anne Moore would love to follow suit. A social scientist and entrepreneur, she tells me from her Sydney office how she started a software business "at 57, mid-career". Later, she founded PlanDo, which offers career coaching and advocates embracing the idea that careers are no longer linear – starting with a junior role and ending at 65 with farewell handshakes. She talks of the much-hyped "gig economy". "People don't retire any more," she argues. "They are working into their 70s." Or longer.
Like many women, Moore juggled different sorts of work with raising a family. She thinks the random, disjointed careers familiar to women may become the norm for everyone. Retirement, she insists, "was never, ever on my horizon. I come from a working-class background and always had a strong work ethic. Just as the idea of being a young stay-at-home mum was never attractive, it never occurred to me that I would retire." Work, she says, can inform a sense of identity; can even be noble. The quest is to find work – paid or otherwise – that is purposeful and fulfilling. And it means thinking about work in different ways.
ABC newsreader Ian Henderson was happy to retire at 65.CREDIT:ABC
Despite the rigidity applied to judges, ideas about retirement are, as Moore suggests, becoming more fluid. And I'm not the only one who resists the r-word. ABC Radio's Jon Faine recently announced that this year would be his last behind the microphone in Melbourne. He told a caller who rang to lament his pending departure, "I'm not retiring. I'm just going to be doing other things."
Faine, now 62, says of his decision to move on: "Inside my head it is very important. I hope to still stay engaged, useful and busy, but not in an all-consuming job like this." I've heard many people – ranging from cricketer Mitchell Johnson to former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett – express variations of the same sentiment: once you start talking or thinking about retirement, you've already gone.
We all thought Malcolm Turnbull was gone when he was deposed as prime minister last August. He even suggested he might go quietly. Then he went to New York. When he returned in October, he declared: "I'm not engaged in politics any longer. I'm retired." Hmmm, maybe …
At least Turnbull didn't shy away from the r-word. Another who didn't was Faine's former colleague Ian Henderson. Late last year, at the traditional age of 65, the Victorian TV newsreader declared that after 38 years at the ABC, it was time to embark upon "a long-hatched retirement plan". A key component was "a bush block; a couple of acres to play with". He calls me from there to discuss his new life. He'd talked of retirement, he says, because it was something people could grasp onto and understand.
"I was informed partly by memories of my own father, who retired at 65," says Henderson. "He was a commercial traveller, a Depression boy; got one job and stuck with it. By the time he got to retiring, he was very much over work. I think he saw ahead a golden age that was perhaps not quite realised ... His idea of renewal was to build a dream home, something he did twice. He withdrew from the community, became quite isolated. To me, that was something of a cautionary tale."
"I was conscious that I needed a few things to fill the void; occupy myself. But it's also good to survey the horizon, see what's out there."
At the bush block, Henderson says, "there's no shortage of projects; [my wife] Susie and I are consumed by them." So too, their adult children. There's a tiered organic vegie garden. And he's taken up baking bread. "I was conscious that I needed a few things to fill the void; occupy myself. But it's also a good idea to survey the horizon and see what's out there."
Since he left the newsroom he's been spotted back at the ABC, doing some work for Catalyst. So has he un-retired? No. "When I stopped, I did not rule out dabbling in other projects. But I was not looking at a second career. My criteria for new things are that they are interesting, worthwhile and fun." The Catalyst project, which involved chatting to centenarians with a strong sense of purpose, ticks all those boxes.
I'd thought he might fit the old stereotype of retirement: out at 65 to play golf. Hendo loves his golf. A knee problem, however, has restricted his time on the course since he stopped reading the news. Still, he declares himself "soooo busy – there often aren't enough hours in the day". Later, he sends a photo of his tomato plants. With a caption: "My Babies".
Some women – like Sally, whom I've known for more than 40 years – choose to reshape their lives. She did this once before, moving from the corporate world to a career teaching English as a second language at a high school. She stopped doing that around the time she turned 60. "If pressed, I would say that I'm retired in one sense of the word. But I'd rather say I'm just living in a different way. I've not withdrawn but restarted."
"I'm retired in one sense of the word. But I'd rather say I'm just living in a different way. I've not withdrawn but restarted."
She expands on the theme: "I still derive an income, but not through recognisable activity – what some call work. My income tax statement looks different. I still have goals and monitor my own performance. I am making different types of connections with people whom I wouldn't call colleagues or friends, but who share similar interests. I describe myself as 'occupied' rather than busy, because busy is a state I was constantly in as a teacher for 13 years.
"I occupy myself now with activities which are of my choosing, including new activities for fun and out of curiosity. I have time now – although I haven't fully capitalised on it yet – for listening to more classical music, reading more widely and broadening my exposure to culture."
She's working on a family-history writing project. She's tried ballet. ("It's meant to be an absolute beginners' class, but no way are they all beginners. Especially that 11-year-old with her hair in a bun, a pink tutu and pointe shoes!") And she's considering a beginners' hip-hop class. "I am having fun and have absolutely no regrets."
American futurist Glen Hiemstra addresses the "what next?" question in this way: "The first quarter of the 21st century will see a great reinvention of the third phase of life, away from classic retirement and towards something like 'life fulfilment'. The end of retirement and beginning of life fulfilment may be a kind of liberation." Or, as an ad puts it: Shouldn't your retirement be the start of something new?
Sure. But what, exactly? There are all kinds of possibilities and no simple solutions. In search of answers, or perhaps just some interesting questions, I enrolled in philosophy classes early in my not-retired life. I ended up doing two terms, which seemed like enough when Rudyard Kipling's poem If was wheeled out for inspiration. The classes taught me the value of pausing; of taking time out, even for just a few minutes, to dwell on the moment. And I liked the notion that anxiety can simply mean thinking about the future. Wondering, and often worrying, about what may lie ahead. I never told the Tuesday-night tennis guys that, for much of one year, my Wednesday nights – yes, Wednesday, once my special day – were occupied pondering topics like The Power of Beauty.
I have lunch with Michael the lawyer in the city, not far from his office. He can't recall me losing my cool over his repeated jabs about "retirement". That's not surprising: it was some time ago. It also confirms that the incident meant more to me than him. He agrees the concept of retirement has changed dramatically since we both started working in the 1970s. It's something he's pondered, too. A few years ago, he was politely nudged out the door of the big law firm where he'd been a partner. Experience can matter less than billable hours. He faced an unsettling period that left him convinced he wasn't ready to walk away.
So he sucked it up and moved on. Talked to people. Got offers from smaller, more flexible law firms. He's doing fine. When he insists on buying lunch, I protest, politely, then wonder if he reckons I can't be earning much in my new life. Stop it, I tell myself, you're being too sensitive again. Later, I send a thank-you message and can't resist two last questions. Can he imagine retiring? And what would that look like?
"No," he replies. "I think 'retire' will likely exit my and others' lexicon. We will all just gradually wind down work, tennis, our social lives and everything else, until we fade away."
I tell him I hope this will be no time soon. "Fading away" is another type of transition; something more unsettling than what we've known. Perhaps we can keep talking about this at tennis again next Tuesday night.
By Alan Attwood
13 April 2019