Chapter 13: Dust Off Those Resumés and Reset the Alarm

The world needs Zoomers back at work now.

This past January, on my first day back from the Christmas-New Year’s holiday, and as a result of the barrage of attention directed at boomers because the oldest of them were reaching the age of 65 — the traditional age of retirement — I was asked to appear on Canada AM to offer my views on the subject.

On the show, I touched on an idea I first discussed in a previous Zoomer Philosophy chapter (“The Best Way to Keep Going Is to Keep Going,” March 2010). In it, I suggested that not only was it beneficial for Zoomers to continue working in some fashion past retirement age but that at some point in the future it might become essential to society that we continue to do so. The Conference Board of Canada, I pointed out, had predicted that as early as the reduces the pension burden. On the other, it increases the productivity and wealth of society at large.

Nothing illustrates this new argument against forced retirement more than an article published last year in Forbes magazine by Glenn Harlan Reynolds, “The Longevity Dividend: Make 70-year-olds feel young and you keep them around longer.” Reynolds’ reason for keeping 70-years-olds around longer is to keep them working longer, a situation he argues will ease the pressure on social security and pension plans, which are already causing huge social dislocations in the U.S.

Consider the near demise of the North American auto industry. The two most damaging costs to the automakers were benefits plans and pension funds. Raise the pension age, keep the workers working longer, and the ratio between productivity and payout swings in a much more efficient direction. If workers at General Motors had been on the job for another five or 10 years before taking retirement, the company might have avoided having to take a bailout.

It’s a lesson not lost on the French, who calculate that by raising the retirement age a mere two years — a proposal that caused riots last October, with workers blocking airports and teenagers breaking windows in Paris suburbs — they can save 29 billion euros (C$40.5 billion) by the year 2018. The British, who are considering a similar tactic along with their new package of austerity measures, hope to eventually raise pension ages from 60 for women and 65 for men to 70 for both sexes. On the way, they estimate they can save 13 billion pounds — C$21 billion — every time they move the pension age up by one year. And these calculations only take into account the removal of pension costs, not the addition of taxation revenue and the contribution to gross domestic product.

The British public’s response to their government’s retirement rethink has been less violent than the French but just as cranky. “Britain is being pushed back to ‘the days of Dickens’ by plans to force workers to retire as late as 70” trumpeted one newspaper headline. “Work till you drop” ran another. It’s interesting to note that Dickens’ preoccupation — remember Oliver Twist — was with child labour; but the new British scandal, it appears, is boomer labour. This is condescension disguised as compassion.

Take, for example, the “concerns” of Dan Hyde, a journalist with London’s Daily Mail and author of the blog This Is Money. Hyde’s problem is the untrustworthy health of aging people. “Think about sending a 68-year-old down the mines every day,” he writes. “What about a 69-year-old bus driver?”

This is precisely the kind of misguided thinking people are traditionally guilty of when they advocate the “need” for retirement. In fact — as I’ve also noted in past columns — the majority of older people are in good health. It’s the final months of life that involve that rapid decline and vaulting expense. With this in mind, Reynolds raises a provocative possibility in his Forbes article. We know, he says, that extending healthy middle age from 60 to 80 (a not outlandish idea given recent medical advances) would create a “longevity dividend” that could make a large dent in the predicted pension crisis. So it might behoove society to divert some of the funds currently being spent on the diseases of old age — a strategy that produces older but frailer people who are “a drain on public resources” and whose quality of life is “iffy” — to research aimed at fending off the adverse affects of aging and producing instead healthier seniors “who can work (and pay taxes) longer while feeling better and enjoying life more.”

As controversial as this idea might be, it has the virtue of once again turning on its head the argument we’ve been hearing ad nauseum over the past decade: that the longer people live, the more of a drain they are. Why is this new-found imperative to work important to us? Because it tells us that we are needed. In the undeveloped world, the great potential workforce may be under 25, where the bulk of the population can be found as well. But in the developed West, where the age pyramid is inverted, the untapped workforce is the face we see in the mirror every day.

Meanwhile, the evidence that retirement is not entirely a bed of roses keeps mounting. This fall, two economists — Robert Willis of the University of Michigan and Susann Rohwedder, associate director of the RAND Center for the Study of Aging in Santa Monica — published a study that suggests that the earlier people retire, the quicker their memories fail. (Continuing to work seems to be far more protective of retention than doing crosswords or Sudoku.)

Another recent study — call it the “familiarity breeds contempt experiment” — shows that newly retired persons report significantly more friction with their partners than people who are still working. Once it was “Want to save your marriage? Retire and take your spouse to Florida.” Now it’s “Want to save your marriage? Keep working.”

If these studies aren’t convincing enough, a recent Bank of Nova Scotia poll revealed that 70 per cent of Canadians plan to work past the traditional retirement age of 65. Among the reasons cited by those who reported they wanted to continue working, 72 per cent said they want to remain mentally active and 57 per cent want to stay socially connected.

But the greatest gift contained in our new economic situation, it strikes me, is the opportunity to continue to make a significant contribution at a time in life when we’re usually expected to see ourselves as evolutionary fifth wheels. If this sounds academic, I can only say that in this case I definitely walk the talk. At 65 — exactly the age when you’re supposed to “hang up your cleats” — I started all over again, launching ZoomerMedia and the ZoomerMovement pretty much from zero. That was four years ago. Today we’re a burgeoning enterprise, a team of advocates and communicators inspired by a Big Idea and employing more than 200 people.

I’ve written about my feelings on legacy — that a bequest left only to our immediate families may have less impact than one left to society at large. Now, thanks to a quirk of history, there’s a legacy we can all get behind: the contribution of our work. What more fitting legacy can we leave than the last thing we ever expected to be asked for at this stage of the game?

Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website.  Click here for more information.