1998 - Redefining retirement
There is something far too cosy
about a report published this week called Redefining
Retirement. It paints a picture of people dancing
out of the door in their mid-50s to embark on
a new life of unmitigated fun, glad to turn their
backs on their jobs and move over for someone
"Retirement is linked with
fun now, not with being over the hill," said
one retiree questioned in a series of interviews
with people over 40. The report, by Sanders &
Sidney, the outplacement company, is also based
on research among 81 human resource directors.
Some two-thirds of the companies
surveyed had early retirement policies and nearly
half said the number of employees opting for early
retirement was on the increase. Retirement, says
the report, has undergone "a major image
shift" and "employers welcome the change.
They anticipate that people will continue to retire
early, improving promotional opportunities for
younger people and refreshing the workforce".
It all sounds so painless.
The report brings to mind the
film, Soylent Green , where people file obediently
into "dying rooms" and fade away gently
to their favourite music, to be disposed of and
reconstituted as snack food for the masses. Edward
G. Robinson, in his last film role, looks so serene
as he lies back to the strains of Beethoven's
Pastoral Symphony and gazes at giant TV images
of pastures and hay meadows.
Perhaps this is what happens
when people are programmed to accept an early
departure as inevitable and "for the best".
It would not do if too many people were, as Dylan
Thomas put it, to "rage against the dying
of the light".
In fact, if there is rage, it
is likely to be against a lack of pension provision.
According to the report, the hard fact of early
retirement is that people often leave with far
less pension than they might have enjoyed had
they worked to so-called "normal" retirement
age - as much as 30 per cent less if people go
five years early. "As a result," says
Tim Sharples, an actuary at Callund Consulting,
a pensions consultancy, "employees may find
they have to go on working beyond retirement age
in order to maintain their income".
In this respect, the report appears
to be on to something: the old demarcation between
employment and retirement is disappearing, just
as it is at the beginning of people's careers
when it is no longer unusual to go back into education
after a few years in work. Increasingly, says
Sanders & Sidney, people are leaving conventional
employment from age 40 onwards, not to stop working,
but to do something different.
The report's guidelines for employers
would make amusing reading were they not written
in earnest. Raise the subject of retirement early
enough, it says to employers, so that employees
can give proper thought to their options. How
early? As soon as they walk through the door?
Well, yes, according to Robin Harding, a former
planning officer who at 52 is now running a fitness
centre with his wife, Kathleen, 46, a former tax
inspector. "Companies should help staff plan
for retirement from day one of their careers,"
he says. The Hardings are among several people
interviewed for the report who have never looked
back since taking early retirement.
Undoubtedly there are people
making the transition from conventional employment
to self-employment with some success, but many
others would still have much to give their existing
employers if it was not for the corporate obsession
with youth. The report warns people to plan for
retirement. People did that, by joining company
pension schemes, only to find the rug pulled from
under their feet when they were "persuaded"
to go early. It was employers that wanted to change
The guidelines advise employers
to plan for movement within the company so that
employees can "move down the intensity scale
if appropriate". They also suggest that companies
should "allow older employees to wind down
slowly - through reduced-time working, homework
or project-based work". This feeds the suspicion
that continues to prevail about homeworking -
that it is somehow not proper work. There are
plenty people out there who would argue differently.
Anyone reading this stuff might
wonder whether they should give up before they
start. If the attitudes expressed in this report
are accurate, people are going to feel their careers
are on the shelf once they are past 40. This discouragement
of ambition among people with so much experience
seems to run through every strata of a company,
feeding the ambitions of a generation of early
achievers while forcing the older dogs to learn
new tricks. But the problem with early achievement
is that it can lead to equally early demise.
Martin Taylor's resignation as
chief executive of Barclays Bank at the grand
old age of 46, is a classic example of someone
who appears to have peaked too early. What now
for the cerebral Mr Taylor? A government job or
a spell in academia? Sanders & Sidney have
plenty of advice: "Be positive - this is
an enjoyable life stage," they say to those
contemplating the limbo of early retirement. In
practice, such blandishments offer little succour
to those experiencing their first taste of rejection
It may be that an official retirement
age was never a good idea. We have Otto von Bismark,
the 19th century German chancellor, to thank for
a universal retirement age of 65 for men. He thought
that was a good age for men to end their productive
lives, working on the sound assumption, at the
time, that they were not going to live much beyond
that. But Bismark lived in an age when labour
was sought after, when experience counted for
How attitudes have changed. When
human resource directors were asked to list the
benefits and problems associated with early retirement,
the biggest benefit they could think of was increasing
the promotional opportunities for younger staff
and the biggest problem was the cost of paying
people off. Yes, there are worries about losing
experience and so-called "corporate memory"
but, overall, employer responses reflect the liturgy
of youth. If Shakespeare were alive to day, re-writing
the seven ages of man in As You Like It , the
age of full-time employment would have the swiftest
of entrances and an even faster exit. But how
can you build a career from a walk-on part?
© 1998 Financial Times Ltd.
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