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Baby boomers are rethinking retirement for a later-life reboot

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The biggest cohort of baby boomers is reaching retirement age – and many are not planning a quiet dotage.

It takes most people four to five days to walk the spectacular Heaphy Track in the South Island’s Kahurangi National Park. But 73-year-old Derry Kingston routinely knocks it out in a day and a half. Over the past 15 years, Kingston has walked the 78.4km track more than 400 times.

He’s been dubbed the “Kingston Flyer”, but others simply know him as “the key man”. He was 56 when he set up a business repositioning the cars of trampers walking the track – which runs from the northern West Coast through to Golden Bay – relieving them of the need to take an expensive and weather-dependent light plane or seven-hour bus journey back to their vehicle.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

He meets his customers at the Golden Bay end of the track, then drives their car round to the West Coast end, and walks back. He moves at a smart clip – it takes him six hours to hike the 24.2 km from the Kohaihai River mouth to Lewis Hut, and 13-14 hours to complete the remaining 54.2km the following day. He carries a small silver transistor radio, and when the reception is good, he can tune in to RNZ while he walks through the wilderness.

It’s a feat that leaves the supremely fit and wiry septuagenarian “weary”, but in hundreds of journeys, he has never injured himself and his joints are in good condition. His heart, too, is in fine fettle. Not long before he set up the business, he had a heart bypass, an operation that he recovered from by training for and completing the Buller Gorge Marathon.

“I like to set myself challenges,” he says. He’s hoping to run the Buller again when he turns 80.

Derry Kingston.

Further down the South Island, Sharon, 63, is embarking on a new career, running a craft retreat in Central Otago. “I have retirement plans that don’t include retiring,” she told the Listener. “I am reinventing myself.”

Sharon (not her real name) was 55 when she threw in her job in Christchurch and bought a plane ticket to England. Over the following weeks, she found herself washing cheeses in a hilltop village in southern France, plastering a straw-bale house in Provence and working in a plant nursery in Ireland.

Behind her were an empty nest with a substantial mortgage, a high-powered position in the finance industry and three adult children. Ahead of her were potential joblessness and uncertainties around her health (in 2005 she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia). But on her own, with a limited budget, a listing with a live-in home-help agency (she lied about her age in case they thought her too old) and a smattering of schoolgirl French, she found her first OE “life-changing”.

“I knew it was a gamble, but I had never been overseas, only as a baby. I had no travel stories, I had a horrible job – this was my opportunity to do my big OE. They were all experiences in themselves; it was all very exciting.”

On returning to New Zealand, Sharon decided on a dramatic change in career. She left the world of finance, enrolled in a three-year visual arts degree and is now constructing a purpose-built studio in Central Otago. As she told Barbara Myers from AUT University’s school of management, her working holiday helped her realise she did have choices, that you can’t “just sit around and wait”.

Instead of “retirement”, Myers uses the word “rewirement” to describe the choices made by women in their fifties and sixties who, like Sharon, leave their jobs and families to travel and work overseas for anywhere between six months and 10 years, exploring the world not from the safety of a cruise ship but as volunteers, live-in carers or Wwoofers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms).

Many left because they were bored, felt overworked or undervalued or were simply burnt out. After a 30-year commitment to work, children and ageing parents, some just wanted time out, the opportunity to experience new cultures, to “make a difference” and to be free to mess up without feeling guilty.

Barbara Myers. Photo/Rebekah Robinson

More than money

The 21 women in Myers’s study were healthy enough to cope with long-distance flights and manual labour. But they were not necessarily wealthy; many survived on very little money, says Myers, but their experiences taught them there were other things they wanted in life “and that was not necessarily to continue in their career”.

Such adventures – and for all the women included in the research, they were adventures – give an alternative twist to the usual retirement story of rest, relaxation and occasional grandparenting duties. Certainly it was risky. As Myers says, “With all the rhetoric around people contributing longer and later to the economy, why are all these women in their fifties thumbing their noses at that and going off to do their OE? How were they going to live their lives if they took this time out at what was a critical time of their careers?”

But the women in her study found their overseas trip was “transformational”. Interviewed by Myers on their return, they described a new sense of confidence, resilience and general well-being, a deeper appreciation of quality of life over the hectic requirements of careers and costly lifestyles and a more open-minded approach to what retirement might look like.

It is exactly these sorts of options that baby boomers – those born between 1946 and 1965 – heading toward retirement should be considering, says Canadian retirement expert and former financial advisor Barry LaValley. In Christchurch to launch the New Zealand edition of his book So You Think You Are Ready to Retire?, in conjunction with financial services firm Cambridge Partners, he told the Listener that financial planning is important in preparing for a long and productive retirement, but so too is looking at how we are going to live out those woefully named “twilight years”.

“So much of the advice being given is: let’s go for the financial plan, then figure out what life you want to lead. That to me is back to front. It is life that will drive the finances. You can set financial goals but you need guidance as to where you are going in life.”

Many of those on the verge of retirement, he says, make the mistake of looking at retirement in the same way our parents or grandparents did: as the period between finishing a working life of often hard labour and dying about 10 years later. But in 1938, when universal superannuation was established, life expectancy was just 68 for women and 65 for men; today, most retiring baby boomers will expect to be in retirement for 20-30 years. That’s a very long twilight.

“We tend to focus on retirement as a 30-year-long weekend, doing all the things we do only in the weekend,” he says, “But that is not the reality. Retirement is just life.”

Work gives us structure, identity, a sense of self-worth and a social network; retirement can too, through volunteering, study, new friendships, getting involved in political or community initiatives – or continuing to work.

“The longer you work at something you like, the longer you live,” says LaValley. “If you retire to do nothing just for the sake of retiring – if you look at the numbers, the time you are going to be around after that is significantly shortened.”

Chris Beardsley.

The need to feel useful

If you can’t or don’t want to work, he says, retire to something that makes you feel you are a productive member of society. “We need to feel we are useful and relevant. The minute we stop feeling like we are human beings, we have no purpose, and when you have no purpose, you get sick. Society makes us feel marginalised as we get older – one of the impetuses of the book was self-actualisation, taking control. So you decide how you want to live, what you are retiring to.”

LaValley’s father retired at 65 (in Canada, the superannuation age is the same as here and there is the same mood to push it to 67) and died at 72. “Was he happy to retire? No. He was a radio and TV announcer and he defined himself by the fact everyone knew him so well. Suddenly he retired and he was nobody – I think it killed him.”

To help their clients form a positive outlook on retirement, he says, financial advisers should talk not just about the size of their retirement nest egg but also about their needs, their wants, their wishes, their goals, and make sure they have a strategy that is flexible enough to handle the “things that come up”.

For some, making these retirement plans is an exciting prospect. In 2015, when Christchurch facilitator Chris Beardsley ran her first course on retirement planning, she asked participants to bring an object that symbolised their retirement.

“One woman dumped this huge textbook on the table – she was going to do her PhD. Another brought a plastic shopping bag tied at the top – it was a poo-bag for the dog she always wanted to own.”

Steve Goodman.

Others talked of volunteer work or travel. But for many, the prospect of retirement, which they saw as joblessness, filled them with fear: of boredom, loss of identity, not feeling valued. “People were thinking about retirement as if life was just running down, until the day they die. So much of our identity is tied up in work, and when that goes, people say they feel invisible, they feel their mana is reduced.”

Beardsley acknowledges that financial planning is an important part of preparing for retirement, but her course focuses on drafting a retirement plan that involves social activity, intellectual stimulation, physical and psychological health and identity.

“You have to think what you want your lifestyle to look like as a retired person. It’s like opening up this door, a re-examination of 20-30 years of life.”

For many, this will involve volunteer work. Last year, about 1000 New Zealanders applied to work for Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA). Most were over 50; about three-quarters were women.

“They are at that point in life when they have acquired a lot of expertise, a lot of experience, and they start looking at the world through a different lens,” says VSA chief executive Steve Goodman. “Their motivation is about making a difference. These are not people you would stereotype as do-gooders: they are pragmatic people, driven by a sense of adventure and the desire to do something positive and to use their skills meaningfully, to give back. For many of them, the idea of retiring or slowing down looks a bit boring. They say, ‘There’s got to be more to life than this and I have to do something that is more valued.’”

After working between three months and two years, he says, they come back feeling changed, “uplifted”, ready to take their lives in different directions. A lot, he says, reapply.

Helen Reynolds (in helmet) with fellow volunteers in Dili, East Timor.

A different plan

Helen Reynolds, 55, says she almost certainly will. The former Wellington teacher and designer spent last year with her husband in East Timor, working as a VSA marketing adviser for a rural women’s co-operative. In developing a new website for the group’s coconut-oil products, she encountered challenges all the way: there were no direct-credit facilities; no stock list; limited English (although Reynolds learnt some Tetum, she often had to rely on the two people in the village who could speak English); and, among the women she was working with, no knowledge of the internet.

But the experience, she says, was life-changing.

“Our basic retirement plan was to live six months in Bali and six months in New Zealand, but sitting on the veranda, drinking beer – it didn’t seem a good way to live life to the full.” Working in East Timor, she says, gave her a new sense of gratitude.

“We were living in very basic accommodation, but we had hot water – every day I would wake up feeling so happy we had hot water. And we were working in a country that had been devastated by war. You feel incredibly lucky that no one in your family had been killed in war, that you had healthcare and education.”

She also feels less selfish than she was. “You read all these awful stories and you wish you could do something, then you just go on with your life. [In East Timor], every day you wake up and feel happy you are doing as much as you can with your skills.”

Increasingly, New Zealanders are continuing beyond retirement age to use their skills in paid work. They may need the money – BNZ research released last year shows a third of homeowners will be over 65 before they pay off their mortgage – or they may just be bored.

Helen Reynolds making soymilk with members of a women’s co-op.

The percentage of the national workforce aged more than 55 is among the highest of all OECD countries. According to a 2016 Treasury report, the proportion of 60- to 64-year-olds in the labour force has risen from 26% to 73% over the past 25 years. For those over 65, this has jumped from 6% to 22% over the same period and will continue to grow as our population ages and improvements in healthcare make longer work lives possible. Transtasman consultants Partners in Change predict that by 2030, nearly a third of New Zealanders aged 65 and over will still be in the workforce.

Negative stereotypes around older workers persist, but recent research by AUT’s Work Research Institute and the Equal Employment Opportunities (EEO) Trust shows that their experience, expertise and institutional knowledge are valuable for an organisation’s reputation and credibility.

The Te Anau-based tourism operator Real Journeys is happy to hold on to its older workers. The supreme winner of last year’s Diversity Awards, it has introduced a scheme using its experienced skippers, some in their sixties and seventies, to train younger workers. Personnel director Kevin Sharpe calls it “a beautiful marriage”.

“There is a big skill gap between those over 50, who have been doing it for a hell of a long time, and those under 30 trying to get accredited. For the older workers, it’s an environment they know and love. They are able to create a bit of a legacy and be part of bringing the next generation through. And there are some things that can’t be taught from the textbook – some of the stories they tell are quite colourful. They have real passion, real life experience that is invaluable.”

As the number of baby boomers entering retirement gathers pace and the number of younger people entering the labour market fails to keep up, the skills and experience of ageing workers will become even more important.

According to the AUT/EEO report, to keep older people in work or to entice them out of full-time retirement will require employers to make concessions: to offer more flexible hours – including the option of working part-time or at home – more generous leave provisions and less onerous shifts. They will need to recognise and respect the skills of the old hands, at the same time as giving them opportunities for retraining and development.

“New Zealand organisations and their mature-age workers could benefit from an increased focus on training to reduce perceived biases and age-discriminatory behaviour of managers, and benefit from greater focus on job design to accommodate the needs of mature-age workers,” the report says.

Kevin Sharpe of Real Journeys.

Not fade away

Retirement Commissioner Diane Maxwell is adding her voice to those calling for more investment in people in their fifties and sixties who want to retrain or upskill to stay in work. “The main thing [older people] say is: ‘Don’t write me off. I’m not old but it could be the skills I have over the past 40 years may not be saleable now.’

“Employers have a responsibility, and I think we need to put more government investment into people in that age group – because if we live into our nineties, our fifties and sixties are a really critical time.”

The Commission for Financial Capability, as the Retirement Commission is now known, acknowledges the importance of physical and emotional well-being in later years, but its primary brief, Maxwell says, is to help New Zealanders’ financial preparation for retirement. It is foolhardy, she says, to underestimate the need for good – and early – financial planning.

“And that happens across a lifetime. For many New Zealanders it is about decisions you make in your twenties, thirties, forties and beyond. So I do get frustrated when people say don’t focus on the money stuff, because, actually, for people who get to retirement with not enough money, the stories are heartbreaking. Having your finances sorted even to some degree gives you those choices to do all the things you want to do.”

As matters stand, those choices will be limited for many of us. According to a 2015 report, a quarter of retirees do not have the money to do the things they want to do in retirement. Maxwell says half of the 2.7 million New Zealanders in KiwiSaver put in less than $1000 a year, and of those, half put in nothing.

“There is a big group who will reach retirement with nothing: no savings, living in a rental. They won’t be able to even ask the question, ‘What will I do with my retirement?’ We have to get the balance right in this conversation, because financial well-being is key to physical and mental well-being. We are not talking yachts and Lamborghinis; we’re talking about the fundamentals of knowing you have a home to come home to, that you can pay an unexpected bill, maintain a car, go to the movies and have a glass of wine with a friend, buy Christmas presents for your grandchildren, travel to a family wedding.

“For people reaching retirement unable to do that, it very quickly reduces their independence, their social connections and their feelings of safety and security. We all seek purpose, we all seek meaning and social connection and we care about our autonomy. Getting your finances into modest shape helps you to retain some of those core ingredients.”

Retirement Commissioner Diane Maxwell.

Looking for meaning

For the returned travellers in Myers’s study, however, that search for meaningful work or activity has been placed centre stage, even if it involves managing on a smaller income. Those who did try to pick up where they left off in the labour market found the experience “overwhelmingly negative”. Employers did not acknowledge the experience and skills they had gained overseas and the women themselves were not prepared to waste their time in work where they did not feel valued.

“They just said, ‘No, if I can’t be treated with respect and dignity, I want to live my life a different way; I’m not going to compromise this positive way I feel.’”

Some, including Sharon, returned to study or pursued long-held creative goals. Others turned to more meaningful if lower-paid work in the community or on the land. Some went for a second OE. But in all their stories, the process of “rewirement” involved a determination to find a meaningful occupation that suited their age, values and renewed sense of autonomy.

Myers, now 62, loves her job and has no plans to retire in three years. But her research into this group of older travellers, she says, has been inspirational. A year ago she moved to the country, to enjoy a lifestyle closer to nature.

“It’s made me reflect on the busy-ness of everything. I’m not saying I’ve addressed it – I am busier than ever – but it’s taught me a lesson about simplicity and it’s made me feel more at ease about later life. These women are … taking control of their lives. Even if you don’t have much money, you can do it.”

Focusing solely on whether we can afford retirement, she says, just increases anxiety “rather than seeing retirement as a stage of life where there’s peace of mind”.

American novelist John Gardner has a theory that in literature there are only two plots: you either go on an adventure or a stranger comes to town. Female characters tend to wait for the stranger to come to town, says Myers, but the women in her study decided to go on an adventure.

“I wouldn’t say this is the be-all and end-all. There are some people whose identity is still centred around their work. But it is a recipe for rejuvenation and living a more authentic and meaningful life than they were living.”

Handing over the keys

Derry Kingston is enjoying his last few months as “key man” on the Heaphy. He and his wife, Helen, are handing over the business to a new owner in April. Retirement will give him more time to pursue his great passion – long-distance walking.

He has already walked the length of New Zealand (before the Te Araroa Trail was created), and next spring, he plans to walk the 1000km Bibbulmun Track in south-west Australia. It will take six weeks, and he’ll do it alone with a one-person tent.

“It suits me down to the ground. And you meet people – you don’t need to be lonely.”

After that he’s keen to do the Pacific Crest Trail in the United States. And he’s looking forward to availing himself of the vast range. of tramping opportunities in New Zealand when he is no longer wedded to the Heaphy.

“I’m happy exploring anywhere,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be on tracks. You can look at a map and choose any ridgeline. So I might do a bit of off-track tramping.”

The three stages of the Third Age

The Commission for Financial Capability lists three stages of retirement:

  • Discovery (65-74): These are the doing years, when you spend money like there really is a limited tomorrow. You travel, eat out, spend more time on hobbies and interests, perhaps stay in work or return to study. Many retirees in this phase are busier than they were before retirement.
  • Endeavour (75-84): Spending slows down, travel becomes more of a hassle and you think about downsizing your house. Sometimes your body is telling you to slow down and life tends to settle into a more gentle routine. Many still pursue hobbies and travel, but at a slower pace.
  • Reflection (85+): Spending often goes up, this time for health and well-being. You are spending more time at home as age curbs ability. The challenge of retirement planning, says the CFFC, is to preserve enough of your resources to have an income to support you in this late stage of retirement.

This article was first published in the February 10, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.