The Long and Winding Career

My youngest son is twenty-one and recently told me that, amongst his mates, there is a strong sense that they will never be able to retire. They believe that the age at which a pension can be collected, will keep moving out of their grasp. This will happen insidiously, while they pay taxes and keep an economy going that enables others to collect. He then pointed me to a reference on this subject. This was not from a textbook or academic paper or extract from the Financial Review, you understand. He’s twenty-one. It’s a You Tube clip called When Can Mario retire?

What my son does not realise, is that his dear old Mum’s generation might also work for more years than we planned. We will find ourselves being persuaded that working longer is good for us. This is because the economy needs us to keep working. It needs our taxes. Otherwise, a shrinking number of taxpayers will be funding a burgeoning lump of retirees and dependents. I can picture the Women’s Weekly cover page now featuring Barbara the Boilermaker, our very own Rosie the Rivetter.

Right now, employers need our skills. In Australia we are already noticing the very real problem in finding workers, and the absence of backpackers and migrant workers during Covid is not a big enough excuse. I had three conversations in the last week (two employers and one recruiter) saying ‘I just can’t get anyone.’

There are many in my generation who will find themselves short on cash and unable to live on their resources, in spite of being ordered, in our twenties, into Superannuation. We had fair warning that the aged pension should not be a goal if we intended to live a comfortable life.  In A Banquet of Consequences, Satyajit Das writes that the typical accumulated balance of Super for Australian men is about $200,000 and for women? You can halve that figure. The current estimate for a balance to get by if you are home owning and debt free, is about $700,000. We rarely know our use-by date, but if you are sixty right now, you have a good chance of making it to ninety, and a forty-year career may not fund a thirty-year retirement. (My twenty-one-year-old has a very good chance of making it to a hundred).  

But even if we are financially secure, some of us may want to keep our hand in. My mother-in-law told me she would rather burn out than rust out. In her seventies, she became the state president of her favourite sport. By sixty, many of us have let go of the ‘fear factor’ in our working lives, by which I mean the fear of disagreeing, worrying about references, or of being our true selves at work.

The cost, and there is always a cost, is that if we are going to continue to work, then we will have to keep learning. Everyone who works (or volunteers) will have to be digitally literate.

Yoda, in The Empire Strikes Back would advise some of us to ‘unlearn what you have learned.’  That’s a hard road, but even those who can build on what they were taught, will find that the piece of paper they framed in their early twenties will not see them through to retirement.

The good news is that ageism may start to diminish and be replaced by Sage-ism. Watch out for ‘Olderpreneurs.’ Over fifty-five’ start-ups are on the rise. Other buzzwords around older workers are ‘repurposing’ and ‘return-ship’ programs.

Susan Wilner Golden from Stanford speaks eloquently on this subject and believes that both the continuous learner and the flexible employer are likely to thrive, but all companies need to be age ready with longevity strategies. Managers will need to consider that they are managing multi-generational teams and need to get their heads around this.

Some countries are ahead of the curve on the ageing worker. Denmark, Israel, and Singapore have stated longevity strategies and more widespread encouragement of continuous learning. I just looked at the offerings of my local TAFE (or Community College) and found some highly subsidised courses in IT for the over sixties. These were not just about internet shopping or organising photos. Introduction to using Zoom was $20. Would we have known what an Introduction to Zoom course was about, just five years ago?

I won’t try to persuade my son that he’s wrong, I think he’s probably spot on, but I might advise him to stop worrying about deciding on a career for life right now. He is likely to change jobs, or careers, a few times. His working life is not going to be a sprint. It’s not even going to be a marathon. It’s going to be a very long walk, with many paths diverging in the wood. It does seem, however, that not many of those paths will lead to a retirement party.

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