If we have careers fairs, why not retirement fairs?

The post-work phase of life needs to be viewed differently, as a chance to shape a new way of living

happy smiling active senior tourist couple together on sightseeing vacation through United Arab Emirates
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When German chancellor Otto von Bismarck invented the modern-day pension in 1889, he may not have expected anyone to use much of it. After all, this new “retirement” age was aligned with life expectancy in Europe, which was significantly less then (mid forties) than what it is today (early eighties), more than 100 years on.

You worked because you needed money to live, and you worked until you no longer could. Work was for financial survival. And if you couldn’t survive, your only options were family, charity, or now in these more modern times, a pension.

We’ve come a long way since then. Retirement is now a full phase of life. The pension addresses the financial needs in retirement. But people can now also make the most of their retirement years because of longer lives and the energy and health to do something meaningful with that time.

This has created a paradox. Our image of pensioners – ailing, frail elders in their twilight years, perhaps – is juxtaposed with the reality of “young elders”, energetic and determined to enjoy life and take part in society.

But what should you actually do in retirement? If you search for ideas, it’s a gloomy mishmashed guidance on how to declutter your house, take up golf (for men) or floristry (for women). And then some even more depressing guidance on how not to fall into depression. It’s tailored around the idea that the end of your working life is the end of your usefulness and self-development.

All of this suggests we need a new template for living life. Too many people’s template is based on work and income – the defining features of the post-Industrial Revolution workplace – and that life is for money and survival. We need to put into practice the adage that you don’t live to work.

In this next phase, “work” – in its widest definition as the creation of value – is about satisfaction, creation, autonomy and contribution. It can be anything from child care, to being a company board member, to creating a tech start-up, a social enterprise or a social running group.

But what should one do when you hit this halcyon period of your life? It’s hard to find out. When we are young and starting work, there are endless opportunities to attend careers fairs or graduate fairs, where employers, charities, social enterprises, government bodies and so on will introduce people to ideas and opportunities.

An active older population that is financially and medically independent is important

If we can have career fairs, then why not retirement fairs? A place where organisations showcase how to craft a life that is not about assigning value or structure through work formats that govern traditional working lives.

Society needs the inputs and talent of older people. Experience, craft, wisdom, strategy, flexibility: a combination of excellence in hard skills as well as a lifetime of honed inter-personal skills. Many have learnt over time and have the experience to know what works and how markets and people behave.

It also helps society for people to be busy, which improves mental and physical health, allowing not just greater economic and societal contribution but also a lesser economic and medical burden.

Many people do need to work for financial stability. And with birth rates dropping and fewer children for every elder to look after them, particularly in western nations, an active older population that is financially and medically independent is important.

This is therefore a benefit to governments seeking to harness valuable talent in changing labour markets.

Our ideas about growing “old” can prevent us from creating a change, and this is as much our collective idea of old age, as well as individuals’ own ideas about themselves. This issue can be exacerbated in certain cultures, where when you move up in age or social station, people see it as a time to be waited upon. Social norms are another amplifier; a sense that once you have outgrown your function (say, parenthood), there is no social function for you beyond that, so what does an older person do?

It’s uncomfortable watching people at a loose end when they approach retirement. But what’s even more baffling is the lack of imagination about a period of life that allows people to truly find self-fulfillment, as well as add exponential value to society, whether it is to their families, their communities, their societies or countries, or at the micro level of individual fulfillment.

Retirement comes from the French word “retirer”, which means to withdraw. But the only thing that needs to be withdrawn here are outdated ideas of retirement. Instead, we need to see this as a new phase of life, with new opportunities and the chance to shape a new way of living.

Published: November 24, 2023, 7:00 AM
Updated: December 07, 2023, 1:54 PM