By Pearman, Geoff
In thirty years time as we look back the whole notion of retirement may well be considered a twentieth century aberration.
A short history of retirement can be divided roughly into three phases. The first period started in the later part of the nineteenth century and ran throu...gh into the early decades of the twentieth century. The focus through this period was on providing financial assistance for the elderly. The German Chancellor Otto van Bismarck, created Europe's first pension plan in 1889. Under pressure he put in place a scheme to provide state support for older people considered too feeble to work. This was at a time when the average life expectancy was forty-five. Ever the politician he set the age of entitlement at 65 ensuring few qualified. Prior to that, people worked until they died with their roles in society and expected contribution changing to match their skills, experience and fitness.
Retirement came to be seen in the second phase as a way to remove older workers from the workforce. Some have called it the era of mass retirement. It was a means for making way for younger workers to progress, particularly as the baby boomer bulge moved through the workforce and put upward pressure on the job market. Incentives were put in place such as defined benefits schemes, employer subsidised superannuation and enhanced early retirement programmes to encourage people to leave early.
By the end of the last century, retirement was seen as a triumph of twentieth century prosperity and a "right". If you were financially successful, a mark of that success was to retire early. Retirement became a reward promised to workers for putting in decades of demanding and often unfulfilling labour as well as a means for making way for the next generation.
This view is now so deeply engrained I still hear some employers privately harking back to the good old days when there was a compulsory retirement age and they had a legitimate means for removing staff they no longer wanted. I also suspect that some employers, who are still wedded to the idea that older workers should just be moving on, find ways to get around the removal of a compulsory retirement age.
I believe we are now moving from this second phase to a third new and exciting stage. What Chris Farrell an American economics journalist, has termed the "Unretirement" phase. He has gone as far as to suggest that for many people their best retirement strategy may be "unretirement". What does he mean?
Farrells' view is that with the boomer generation living longer many more people will be extending their working lives. "We're at the early stages of a long, difficult transition toward a different vision of the elder years, less a model of disengagement from work and neighbourhood to one of continuing engagement in work and community."[i]
With any social change there is usually a period of disruption and uncertainty. So it is with the history of retirement. We are in transition, not fully understanding the new phase, its implications or having frameworks or a language to discuss it. We need to be careful not to let the financial services sector define this life stage. They have a significant investment in maintaining the status-quo.
Longevity is seeing people constructing their life course in quite different ways and for many the concept of retirement is no longer helpful.
Edited excerpt from my upcoming book Doing it Differently - life and work after 50.Read more
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Geoff Pearman lives in Dunedin, having previously lived in Christchurch, Wellington and Brisbane. In 2012 he established a consulting business focused on the ageing of the workforce. He now works with clients in Australia and New Zealand in sectors as diverse as financial services, tertiary education, health, aged care, transport, utilities, manufacturing, local and central government. Geoff has a BA, a Diploma in Social Work and a Certificate in Continuing Education, and a master's degree in the sociology of organisational change - all completed as a mature student. During his career he has worked as a social worker, trainer and manager in the social services, university and government sectors. He ventured into business in his 60s and fully appreciates the challenges and opportunities that come from being a senior entrepreneur.
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