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How not to retire: The older Kiwis who are holding onto their jobs

The population of New Zealanders reaching retirement age will double in the next 25 years as hundreds of thousands of baby boomers officially cross the line. But increasing numbers are choosing not to leave their posts, reports Venetia Sherson.

In the opening scene of the poignantly funny film About Schmidt, a 66-year-old Nebraskan insurance executive, played by Jack Nicholson, sits in an empty office surrounded by packed boxes. As the clock ticks past 5pm, he picks up his coat and turns out the lights as he leaves.

Later, he attends a retirement dinner thrown by his employers, a painful affair, in which the new boss acknowledges his long service. Days later, when he returns to the office to see if any help is needed in deciphering his accounts, he finds all his files in a wheelie bin.

Hamilton film critic Sam Edwards reviewed the movie in 2003 and gave it five stars. He liked the way it captured what it was like to grow old and suffer loss. Two years before, he had retired as associate professor of film studies at the University of Waikato, an event planned in an orderly fashion to coincide with his 65th birthday and structural changes in his department.

He says it was a good time to go and believed he was well-prepared for his retirement. But, 15 years later, approaching his 80th birthday, he wrote a newspaper column raging against “snotty-nosed ad men or highly trained social scientists infected by Management School philosophies”, who painted a utopian picture of retirement.

“Baloney and bananas!” he wrote. “Now I am retired, a disorganised wreck of a man whose life has no structure… Oh, for the scheduled days of yore… the conversations that never have a medical reference… the companionship of people who have a sense of direction… Oh, for a job.”

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Over coffee at his regular cafe in Hamilton, Edwards is sheepish, declaring his rant was a compilation of the thoughts of many people, rather than a lonely cry for help. Nevertheless, for a long time he missed his working life. 

“I am the ultimate headless chook, so teaching was the perfect career for me,” he says. “Life was run by bells. I knew when to start and when to stop. Plus, I could combine my interest in people with enough money to keep me alive. Teaching provided structure in my life.”

Retirement has meant building a new structure for which there is no manual. “When [retirement] comes, it is like some great amorphous thundercloud on a grey, overcast evening, not like a bright new dawn. There is no view into the next day.”

Edwards is particularly scornful of the image of retirement as “a genteel existence of tea and conversation... where fat and happy people with coiffed hair play bowls and where lawns are mown by someone else”. The reality can be quite different.

“I sleep for eight hours; I’m awake for 16. I still have to find things to fill up my day. I love trout fishing, but I don’t want to go trout fishing every day. I love cooking, but so does my wife. How do you fill those hours with not just fun but satisfaction?”

Read more: Are retirement villages milking the elderly for profit? 

Sam Edwards, a former associate professor of film studies at the University of Waikato, says retirement for him has meant “building a new structure for which there is no manual”. Photo/Ken Downie.
Ken Tremaine. Photo/Ken Downie.

As with other demographic trends, there are differences between men and women. While older people of both sexes are extending their working lives, men are doing so in far greater numbers. In the past 30 years, the number of working men aged 65-plus has more than doubled: one in four is now employed in full-time work, almost twice the rate of women. It may be they feel there is no reason to quit – or simply don’t know what they’d do in retirement.

While hobbies are enjoyable as a pastime, they may not appeal as a full-time activity. Men also may not have developed social networks outside work, as women often do during child-rearing years. Moving into the home space can be challenging. Sam Edwards says one of his friends, who has turned 65, would like to stop work. “But he says the house is his wife’s domain.”

For men, especially, work can also be tied to self-esteem. It provides status, professional networks and social interaction. In his book Retirement: Life’s Mt Everest: Man’s Journey Through Psychological Hell, US psychologist Peter Rimbach says for men, work is the “primary psychological scaffolding” of their lives. “Men are the procurers and providers. Their self-esteem is dependent on their activity and productivity. They are often psychologically unprepared for the quantum shift [to retirement], the feelings of worthlessness, loneliness and frustration that come with not being in paid employment.”

In Japan, where the official retirement age is still 60, it’s been estimated nine out of 10 men struggle with retirement, and wives bear the brunt of their dissatisfaction in the home – a condition referred to as “Retired Husband Syndrome”.

The phenomenon of people working during the “third age”, as the French delightfully describe it, is not new, of course. World leaders happily remain in office past their three score years and 10. In the UK, Winston Churchill was 65 when World War II broke out; US President Ronald Reagan was a few days shy of 70 when he entered the White House.

Legendary British leader Winston Churchill was 65 when World War II broke out. In 1955, when this photograph was taken on the campaign trail, he was 80. He wouldn’t retire from politics for another nine years. Photo/Getty.

At almost 76, Walter Nash was New Zealand’s oldest incoming Prime Minister when the Second Labour Government took office in 1957. Winston Peters has just signed on for another term in Government, aged 72. Many captains of industry work into their 70s and even 80s. US stockbroker Alfred Feld was still working at Goldman Sachs when he died in 2013, aged 98.

But it’s the sheer volume of older employees that is exercising the brains of statisticians, economists and employers. While working longer is generally agreed to be a good thing, there are challenges ahead. One is that employers appear not to be prepared for – or enthusiastically embracing – the stampede. A report by the NZ Work Research Institute and Equal Opportunities Trust found most organisations have neither a policy nor programmes and initiatives in place to address the issue.

More concerning, it also identified “a silent tipping point” when older workers – aged between 50 and 60 – were viewed as “less attractive” to an organisation, due to commonly held stereotypes relating to health and safety, physical and cognitive behaviours, resilience, job performance and productivity, training, promotion and technology. This suggests that while superannuitants may be keen to continue work, employers may be less happy to employ them – a particularly difficult scenario for a worker made redundant in their 50s or 60s who then tries to find another job.

“We have found recruitment consultants are reluctant to send out CVs of people in their 50s.”

Maxwell says there is evidence of discrimination in the workplace. “We have found recruitment consultants are reluctant to send out CVs of people in their 50s.”

Last year, the Commission for Financial Capability, which she heads, surveyed 500 workplaces. More than 80% of them had no strategy for managing older workers.

“Our sense is that this is changing, because of the need to tap into this resource, and because attitudes towards ageing are changing. Some workplaces will be ahead of the game. Others will wait until they have a shortage of workers and it smacks them in the face.”

The key, she says, is for employers and employees to have “simple, templated HR conversations” around future planning. “And young managers need to be trained to manage older workers.” 

Dame Peggy Koopman-Boyden, who spent her 45-year academic career focusing on older people and co-authored a report into active ageing for the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, says an ageing workforce presents complex issues for communities and workplaces.

As former chair of the Hamilton City Council’s advisory group on older people, she had to remind councillors about their planning responsibilities. “I said, ‘What are we going to do with mobility scooters? If I’m 85 and still at work, where will I park my scooter?”

While she stepped down from her position at Waikato University at the end of 2015, Dame Peggy still works three days a week and has no plans to retire. She won’t reveal her age but admits her former boss – the current vice-chancellor of Waikato University, aged 60 – is a former student. She briefly considered retirement four years ago. “But then we got some further research money and so it went on. Work is my life, so why should I move out?”

She believes older people also have responsibilities if they remain in the workforce, however. “As older people, we must manage our work roles by keeping up our training and expertise and, if we’re not with it, move out.”

The Unretired

Barbara Tane, 70, works for Life Unlimited in Hamilton, a charitable trust offering support for the disabled. Photo/Ken Downie.

Barbara Tane, 70

Barbara Tane’s father worked until he was 82; there is every chance she will do the same. “I can’t see myself stopping soon.” An older brother and sister in their mid-70s still work full-time; another has just retired.

Tane says her father instilled a strong work ethic in his eight children. He had an agricultural contracting business for many years and later managed sheep farms. “He used to say, ‘Don’t expect something for nothing… you’ve got to earn your bread and butter.’ I’ve always carried that with me.”

Tane, 70, is a community services facilitator for Life Unlimited in Hamilton, a charitable trust offering support for the disabled. She commutes 30km to work each day from Te Awamutu. Sometimes she also visits clients in the evening, providing advice, support and information about services available.

Her work has always involved caring for others. She was an occupational therapist for 26 years at Tokanui Hospital before it closed, and then worked for the Richmond Fellowship, a mental health organisation, before joining Life Unlimited 17 years ago.

A widow, with two adult children and three grandchildren, Tane says she is sometimes asked why she doesn’t retire. “When your family leaves home, you need to have a purpose. My job gives me something to get up for every day.”

She does get tired sometimes – “more mentally than physically. But I have never had a time when I’ve thought, ‘I don’t want to go to work each day.’”

Her father died 19 years ago. “Even in his last years, he still refused to let us chop his firewood. He’d say, ‘That’s my job.’”

Ken Tremaine, 71, is an urban planner. Photo/Ken Downie.

Ken Tremaine, 71

As an urban planner, Ken Tremaine constantly contemplates the future: how and where new urban growth will occur, what is needed, the impact of development on communities and the environment, plus the benefits and costs.

Sometimes, these days, he also contemplates his own future.

“I suppose I do carry an extensive workload for an old codger. I wonder how long I should continue. But I love work. I love the problem solving, the intellectual curiosity, working with other people who share my passion. When I think about retiring, I think, ‘I still have skills to contribute.’”

Tremaine is a consultant with Future Proof, a partnership between Waikato and Bay of Plenty councils, the NZ Transport Agency and tangata whenua, to consider how the region, which has a population of half a million, should develop into the future. His workday starts between 6.30am and 7.30am when he leaves his Auckland apartment overlooking Bledisloe Wharf and drives to Hamilton or Tauranga for meetings with the partner organisations. As well, there are presentations, conference calls, talks with politicians and – in the evening – reports to read.

“This isn’t the sort of job you work part-time. There are changes to the political environment, the legal environment, in community expectations. You have to be up with – or one step ahead – of the clients.”

Tremaine grew up “on the fat of the land” in Mandeville, near Gore, studied urban geography and politics at Otago University, then completed a master’s in town planning at the University of Auckland (the first person to do so in New Zealand), before working as a town planner at Mt Albert Borough Council. At 29, he was appointed city planner at Palmerston North City Council, when Sir Brian Elwood – later appointed Chief Ombudsman – was mayor. “Chief ombudsmen often worked into their 70s. They were our role models.”

He later worked in Asia, entering the commercial world and, in 2000, set up his own consultancy, commuting fortnightly between Hong Kong and Auckland (“same seat in business class; same hotel room”).

Last year, after a visit to Africa, he felt unwell. “I was diagnosed as a type 2 diabetic. Never had a day’s illness in 65 years. It gave me one hell of a fright.” But he tackled his illness with the same energy he brought to his work, dropping 18kg. In a few weeks, he was symptom-free.

“It did give me pause for thought. But I’ve got all my energy back. I’m enjoying my work. I notice a trend – and it scares me witless – of under-occupied retired people with a lot of time for enjoying ill-health, and a lot of money to spend on medical diagnosis. While I don’t want to be profligate with my health, I don’t want to be dictated to by it, either.”

He says he measures himself on his ability to contribute. “I don’t see myself operating by age. It’s a bit like a kaumātua on a marae. If your knowledge is good, your colleagues respect you, irrespective of age. That’s my very strong belief.”

Health worker Denise Irvine, 72. Photo/Ken Downie.

Denise Irvine, 72

Hamilton health worker Denise Irvine is a former nurse who now works in tele-health at Waikato DHB, helping healthcare tap into emerging technology. It’s a field she describes as stimulating and challenging. “Very occasionally, I wonder about my age and whether I should be thinking about next stages. But I get a lot of satisfaction and excitement provided by my work – and I have a lot to offer in my area – so I just carry on.”

Irvine trained as a nurse in the early 1960s and went into public health. After the birth of her two sons, she returned to work part-time before moving to Waikato Polytechnic (now Wintec) as a lecturer, then later managed the post-graduate nursing programme.

In 2006, she resigned and set up a business called E3 Health and the following year, was appointed nurse co-ordinator at Waikato DHB, managing post-graduate education. She took up her current role in tele-health two years ago when her position was restructured.

Outside work, she is a serious tramper and has walked the Milford and Routeburn tracks (the latter this January) with three of her grandchildren. While she loves her activities outside work – including travel – she’s not ready to pursue them full-time. “For me, the lack of stimulation and excitement in my work would be too high a price to pay.” Yet she’s often asked when she plans to retire. “I sometimes feel people think I’m missing out.”

A member of several boards and advisory bodies assessing the best ways to share health information, she believes it’s essential to upskill and keep in step with the rapid changes in her field. “If I ever felt I wasn’t operating to a high standard [of work], that would make me reconsider.”

This was published in the March 2018 issue of North & South.