Sunday 15 September 2019

The retirement dilemma: Do we have to work or want to work?

This column first appeared in Malta Today

When you are young, the prospect of retirement seems such a long way off, it might as well be in another galaxy. But the years pass inexorably by, you blink and suddenly there you are, on the threshold  of another milestone.  

In theory, retirement should be a time to look forward to: it is what most people daydream about during those long hours at the office, or when the alarm clock rings obscenely early on a cold, dark, winter’s morning, as they glumly face the drudgery of the ‘getting everyone out of the house on time’ routine and while sitting in their cars in soul-destroying traffic.   They have visions of having a nice lie-in, a leisurely breakfast, followed by a spot of shopping and perhaps coffee with friends. What’s not to like?

But when 60 starts knocking at your door, it suddenly becomes much too real.  The first cold slap in the face for those who have reached that decade is when they receive their new I.D. card with “60+” printed in a large, bold font.  They are reminded of their age every time they have to present their I.D. which is pretty much everywhere, and it’s only a small consolation that they get a discount on the Gozo ferry.  On the other hand, at least it’s an improvement from the previous ‘karta anzjan’. I remember when my Dad received his and he had a minor meltdown at seeing the word ‘anzjan’ which, let’s face it, does have a derogatory ring to it, especially when one does not feel or act that old at all. Unfortunately, he did not live long enough to enjoy his retirement so, as corny as it sounds, we do need to count our blessings as we reach each birthday no matter how depressing the number may make us feel. 

Depending what year you were born, some of us will be facing retirement at 63, 64, 65.  When I checked my own situation with the social security office (something I urge everyone to do) I was informed that because I have enough N.I. contributions, I can even stop working at the age of 61 if I wish.  The thought of it was briefly tantalising (although the amount of the actual pension I will receive was not), but when I speak to people who have been made to retire because they have reached the mandatory age, a new picture emerges.  

As with anything in life, there is a huge difference between choosing something out of your own free will, and being forced to do so.  Those who gladly retire and even throw a party to celebrate this new time in their lives are in one category, while those who are being shown the door even though they wish to continue working, are in completely different territory.  Our work defines us in so many ways, that when we are told our services are no longer required (whether it is because of retirement or even redundancy), there are a lot of psychological implications at stake. 

Men tend to feel it more keenly because of social conditioning and expectations: at cocktail parties they are asked ‘what do you do?’ while most women are still asked ‘do you work?’.   A man who does not work is looked at askance as people mentally imagine the word ‘bummer’ hovering like a cartoon cloud over his head, while a woman who does not work is usually given a free pass especially if she has an important role as a stay-at-home mum.  However, as more and more women enter (and remain) in the workforce, they too are feeling the impetus of what it means to be ‘let go’, the euphemism which is used to mean, ‘ciao, we don’t need you any more’.

Women who have worked for most, or all, of their lives are now facing the same identity crisis which has long gripped men who have reached retirement age.  “What will I do with myself?” “How will I spend my time?”  They speak of feeling lost and disoriented without the routine of getting dressed and going to the office, and they end up squandering this newly-found freedom by milling around aimlessly, rather than getting anything actually done.  As for men, we have all heard the anecdotes from women over a certain age who have always been housewives and whose domain is the home, speaking with irritation about having their despondent husbands hanging around them too much every single day,  curtailing their own previous freedom.  

If not planned for carefully, retirement can be a rocky time of adjustment for any couple, but even more so for those who are single, whose work gave them their much-needed social interaction.  After all, as part of a couple you can at least use this new stage in your life to do things together although, of course, that presupposes that you have cultivated similar interests throughout your relationship. What are supposed to be the Golden Years may also hit a snag if they also coincide with the empty nest syndrome, which means the woman is simultaneously facing her own identity crisis because she is not ‘needed’ as much any more. If the relationship was already a dysfunctional one to start with, throwing two people together for long periods of time who have lost what gave their lives meaning and fulfilment, can be a recipe for disaster.  Rather than those warm, fuzzy adverts of svelte, youthful-looking, silver-haired couples dressed in white and denim smiling romantically at each other on a deserted beach at sunset, the reality might be more like two grumpy people seething in a kitchen, harbouring secret murderous thoughts about each other (“if he grinds his teeth ONE MORE TIME…”).   

We can sometime underestimate how important a role work provides, if only to give each other much needed breathing space and those crucial periods of time away from each other.  There is nothing like a dose of work-related problems which need to be solved which can get your mind off the fact that your other half has infuriated you yet again over some petty domestic issue. 

It is not surprising, therefore, that those who have the privilege of doing so, are extending their employment contracts to continue working beyond retirement age.  So while we may dream wistfully about the day when we no longer have to go to work, the rude awakening of what it really means only hits you when you actually come face-to-face with it.  First of all there is the pension itself, which is a major consideration because suddenly having your income drop to an average of 800-900 Euro a month can come as quite a shock.  By the way, 900 Euros is the maximum no matter how much you may have earned.  (Once you have reached mandatory pension age, you can continue working while still receiving your pension, if your employer agrees).  Having to change your lifestyle and pinch your pennies in your twilight years is just one more devastating blow.

But there are also a myriad of little things which we now take for granted which also colour what it means to be ‘retired’.  It is a fact that we live in a world, especially the Western world, where ageism abounds.  As the years and decades roll by, people tend to shift their perspective and look at you differently once you announce your age, and even more so when you casually let slip that you are a pensioner.  An interesting article carried by BBC News online “Why we lie about being retired”, pointed out that it is for this reason that many still define themselves by their previous profession. “A retired teacher”, “a retired research chemist” and so on.  According to Prof Teresa Amabile who carried out the research:  “Some will deny being retired which is very interesting…we asked them why they do this and they say it’s because they don’t want to be seen as someone who is out to pasture. One person said, ‘I don’t want to be seen as yesterday’s news, I want to be the news right now’.”

It is only when we are about to lose our job that we begin to understand how much it has given significance to our lives.  It explains why “being put out to pasture” can make people feel worthless and non-productive, especially those who have worked non-stop for decades.  Obviously, those who have toiled in manual labour or low skilled jobs may welcome the chance to finally put their feet up, but if you feel that you still have a lot to give, then mandatory retirement can be a harsh pill to swallow.

This is perhaps best summed up by this quote from the above-mentioned research. When interviewed, Edmund Phelps who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2006 and who is still giving lectures in his mid-80s, said,  “The world of work is a dynamic place and it’s a fantastic place for testing yourself and showing what you can do, achieving and discovering and exploring, all of that goes on in the wonderland of work.”  

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