Aging well is as much about happiness and relationships as it is about being financially secure.
The way we live now
Younger people face the prospect of aging in much reduced financial circumstances in comparison to their parents and grandparents. And the way we live now makes it harder to maintain friendship and family bonds - which we now know are so vital for physical and mental health.
Facing the future
Is there something the Co-op can do to help our members and others face their later years with a degree of confidence that their social, emotional and financial needs will be taken care of? We carried out some early discovery research as a starting point for a more targeted experiment.
We spoke to 5 people in their 50s and 60s who had recently stopped working. We also spoke to a number of people who work or volunteer with older people: a GP, a travel agent and representatives from the WI, U3A and Age UK.
We asked people about their perceptions of
retirement and how people can make plans for their lives after they finish working.
What are the needs of people planning for and living through older age?
Having someone looking out for you
Retired people worry about being forgotten. They appreciate the friends, family and volunteers who advise them on their emotional, physical and financial welfare. And they want their needs to be understood and anticipated by the people around them.
Contact with friends, family, volunteers and professionals is important. People like the WI groups that check up on members who miss meetings. Family who encourage exercise and activity. Peers who can relate and advise. Church groups that organise tea parties in people’s houses; support that starts in the home makes trying new things less daunting.
I talked to members of my family when I was planning retirement, I trust their judgement more than anybody.
The thing that has the most impact from [older people’s] sense of wellbeing was how they interacted with the community around them. It could be as basic as having a conversation with somebody.
Stuff to give me an identity and purpose
Who the hell am I? Our working lives define us, whether we enjoy them or not. As work ends, it’s harder to define ourselves and understand our value. Making a contribution to society; having a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Finding a post-work identity can mean re-inventing yourself, which takes courage and effort. It’s a two-way process too. We need signals back from the outside world to confirm we are useful and relevant.
Doing new stuff helps. Taking on projects, learning a new skill, spending time with family and volunteering gives meaning to post-work lives. People who were new to post-work life told us that extra time with grandchildren, tackling ambitious home renovations and doing courses gave them joy and purpose. For people who are used to joining clubs it comes easier, for others it’s harder to
get off your backside.
It seems a bit odd not going to work - I’ve worked full time since I was 16 - is very odd not having to work. But I can rationalise - I’ve saved, I won’t starve - but it takes time to get your head around it.
We have one lady who is 92 and she runs a Tai Chi class ... she talks about her ‘old ladies’ ... she’s talking about older people as if that’s not her ... people don’t define themselves by their ages, it’s their purpose and how active they are.
Changing working practices
Being able to make changes to the way you work as you get older is important.
Politics at work and stress can mar the later years of working life. Retirees talked about having to adapt to changing working practices and falling out with colleagues, prompting their decision to stop working.
Working less and working differently enables a gentler transition into post-work life. Taking on a less physical or less stressful role within the same company, or for a new company. A few retirees told us they enjoyed reducing their hours as they got older, and one person in a senior management role told us they planned to work as a delivery driver - a low-stress job that finished at the end of the working day.
I would have gone on another 6 months but there were changes at work I didn’t like, and didn’t want to learn new ways of working, so I decided to stop.
There was lots of politics at work and I’m not interested in that sort of thing.
Conscious decision making
Retirement requires compromising between living in the present and planning for the future
Years of financial diligence and awareness of the choices available at the time of retirement both make a big difference to people feeling secure and ready to retire. ‘Owning’ the decision to retire lessens the shock of the lifestyle change. Making decisions with a partner is common; many delayed or brought forward their own retirement in order to retire at the same time as their partner.
If you have a long term workplace pension, the financial safety net enables shrugging off workplace political tensions by deciding to leave work. One woman in less secure employment struggled with feeling that her time at work had ended prematurely. Age is less of a barrier to staying in work than attitude:
If you’re not ready to retire, then don’t!.
Some reported having chased higher paid management positions in the years running up to retirement, in order to boost their pensions - even if they didn’t enjoy the work. Retirement requires compromising between living in the present and planning for the future.
[in the last five years] we had both been promoted into higher management jobs - it was quite stressful - we were starting to think about retiring and appreciating this time as we are still quite young and wanting to appreciate it. We were starting the countdown.
Help with financial planning
Paying off the mortgage is the primary trigger to begin thinking about retirement. Without that monthly obligation, a lower monthly income becomes a feasible option.
Everyone acknowledged the drop in income that comes in retirement. That can make a discernable difference to daily life, but tended not to cause extreme anxiety. One retiree told us about how much more careful she is when food shopping. Another told us that
I always worry about how we’ll manage, but I think we’ll be OK.
Retirees talked about
checking out their options to find out how much they’d receive in retirement before deciding what to do. Those with final salary pensions knew that they were lucky: they received a good monthly income, and they had never had to worry about how much they were saving.
Financial advice came from family members, friends, ex-colleagues, and from company pension schemes. One man meets up with ex-colleagues (he didn’t call them friends) to discuss financial tips and tricks, like receiving National Insurance credits for looking after grandchildren. He trusted peer advice over the financial advisor who turned up for an appointment in a Porsche.
The realisation that I can actually survive on this amount of money if I’m careful - I don’t buy anything if it’s not on my shopping list. I bought a bottle of Tia Maria recently, but I wouldn’t do that every week, that’ll probably last me for a year.
We’ve spent a bit of the lump sum and our savings on extension and holidays - we know we’ll need to cut back a bit in the future but we’re OK for now.
I had a pension from my employer - I didn’t have to worry - I know I’m very fortunate.
Staying inside on your own might be the easiest option, but…
Those having a happy retirement know that they need to keep themselves busy, even if their natural instincts to
sit on my bum, listen to the radio or read a book. Staying inside on your own might be the easiest option, but
your life will be shortened considerably if you don’t [go out].
For some, they are as busy retired as they were when they were working. One retiree told us of a friend who
practically works full time with voluntary work. Looking after grandchildren, housework, photography courses, lunch with friends and generally
pottering about make some retirees wonder how they could ever have fit in full time work.
We saw a loose correlation between income levels during working lives and happiness in retirement. Retirees with income above the state pension have more options available to them, and make plans accordingly. Those without extra income have fewer options. A GP in Sheffield told us about patients living on the state pension struggling to stay active without work filling their days, and booking GP appointments just for a chat. This lack of activity and social interaction leads to feelings of depression and hopelessness.
Whoever you are, though, days can be long. A motivated morning spent renovating the house can slip into an afternoon watching quiz shows. For retirees without a partner, evenings can drag on. We heard a lot about social lunches and coffees - and not very much about dinner.
Meeting new and existing friends
When you retire your world shrinks. I was working with people all over the world. We all have our own friends, but your world suddenly shrinks. You need to make new friends.
Retiring means that people no longer see their colleagues day in day out. If people’s social networks were predominantly work based, this can come as quite a shock.
Some of the participants that were enjoying retirement described how they put effort into meeting up with old friends and colleagues at lunch socials, or monthly meals out. Others talked about how they joined clubs or took up volunteering opportunities as a way to meet new people and make new friends.
The Chair of the University of the Third Age described how she thought that joining groups and making friends was particularly harder for men of her generation and observed that two thirds of their group were women. This is common across the organisation.
It’s about the social side - I’d work for free and made tea and do admin - just to stay busy.
Don’t stop dreaming
Some participants told us how the move into retirement offered them the opportunity to redefine themselves. Every participant suggested that you should plan for this shift, not only financially but also by reflecting on what you enjoy doing and what makes you happy.
Leaving work, as we’ve heard, on the one hand can take away a sense of purpose for the day, however presents plenty of time for fulfilling activities.
One participant described his dreams of flying around South Africa or Australia once he retires. He recognises this will take money, but is also in the privileged position where he can take a cash lump sum from his pension when he hits 60.
Those participants that were enjoying retirement weren’t afraid to have big dreams.
We go touring - did 6 weeks in California - next one will be Italy.
Empathy with others
On a personal level you need to be able to voice those fears to somebody, with people who can understand. Some sort of support network is really important.
Going through retirement is clearly an emotional time. Retirees really appreciated being able to share their experiences with others going through the same thing. This might be ex-colleagues, friends or a partner.
It felt more challenging for people when they themselves had retired but their partner hadn’t yet. Some participants felt like they were waiting, in limbo, and one lady described herself as
spending a lot of time on my own. While one person had thrown herself into helping revive a Church in London she recognised that most of the other volunteers there were in their 20s or 30s and she missed being able to talk about how she was feeling going into later life.
Introducing structure after work
I find it a very stark transition. A speech in the office, a piss up on Friday night, and the following Monday you’ve got nothing to do. You could go off the rails with that. It could take a long time to adjust.
The work routine can be a bit of a
crutch, in that you don’t have to think about it. You get up, you get out there, you come home and you have a glass of wine to relax. Losing that routine can be challenging. Retirees who fared best found new ways of introducing routines into their lives: grandchildren on certain days, weekly classes, monthly lunches.
One man described how he was thinking of driving a courier van for two days a week. He wanted to fill his time with a combination of part time work and voluntary work. It was important to him that is was an undemanding role that he could walk away from at the end of the day.
If you’re going to do anything - like work on the house - you start at 10, take 1 hour for lunch and finish by 4pm.
The difficulty comes when you’re doing the Monday to Friday, 9-5, full working week, and then suddenly that drops off completely. That’s where there’s a feeling of disjointed and disconnected, because you were this person and now you’ve got to find who this new person is.