In defence of not retiring: Why stopping work isn't for everyone

Much like the two 70-something female leads in Netflix’s series ‘Grace and Frankie’, many women aren’t ready – or able – to retire [Photo: Netflix]

Words by Lydia Smith.

Many of us have had days when we’ve counted down the years until retirement, when we can finally wave goodbye to busy commutes, sort the garden out and wash down lunch with an ice cold Pinot.

In reality, though, more people are continuing to work past traditional retirement age. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of women working past the age of 70 doubled to 11.3%, according to official ONS figures.

Lots of us have accepted that retiring is wishful thinking, too, with a study published earlier this year suggesting the number of employees expecting to work past 70 rising from 17% in 2010 to 32% in 2017.

This is partly explained because of the abolition of compulsory retirement in 2011, but there are a number of different factors at play, too. Many women are happy to continue working because they love their jobs, but others are having to work longer because they can’t afford to retire.

Maria, 68, is a gardener and says she enjoys her job, but is still working because she needs the money. “I used to do it full time but I cut down a couple of years ago. I probably do 22 to 25 hours a week now. I like it, luckily, but I could think of other things I could be doing with my time,” she says.

“I’m hoping that I’ll stop at 70, but we’ll see. I mean I’m quite happy to work, I’m not moaning because I do like it. I feel very involved in what I’m doing,” Maria adds.

“I suppose a lot of women now are working longer because of the state pension age going up, quite a lot of women are having to work over 65. I think a lot of people really do like their jobs, or they like the sociability of it – they’re going out to work. But it must be very hard for people who have expected to retire.”

From 2019, the State Pension age will increase for both men and women to reach 66 by October 2020. Over the next decade, it will rise to 67.

Currently, only a third of millennials are saving for retirement, mainly because paying bills, rent and paying off student loans means there’s not much leftover – particularly for a generation which started work at a time of high unemployment and stagnant wages.

Other age groups have been hit hard by the increase, too. Thousands of women in their 50s and 60s say a lack of information about the female state pension age rise from 60 to 66 meant they didn’t find out about it until too late – leaving them with no time to make plans.

A 2017 study by Homecare found half of workers aged 40 to 64 years say they are unable to retire when they reach pension age because they need the money, either because of low levels of savings or meagre pensions.

Cash isn’t the only reason why women are working for longer, though. For many, reaching 65 doesn’t necessarily mean they are ready to retire.

“Age just doesn’t mean anything to me,” says Gwen, a 65-year-old secondary school teacher. “I did actually retire three years ago, but I never left. So I’ve got my pension and I’ve got my lump sum from school, but I continued working part time.”

She works three days a week and last year, volunteered to be head of department for a year while another staff member was on maternity leave.

“I can’t imagine not teaching. I just think I was born a teacher and that’s all there is too it. I’m a specialist teacher and I teach fine art and fine art textiles, and I’m the only person who teaches that in the school,” she says.

“I just love what I do. The money is great, I have three kids go through university, we had a mortgage on the house, we extended the house, we haven’t been mortgage free for a long time – about three years – so it is nice that we have money to spend,” Gwen adds. “I’ve got friends who are retired and they think I’m nuts. But I’m just the same person I was thirty years ago.”

Amanda Feilding, 75, says the passion that drives her to work through her 70s is the same as when she started working in her 20s. She is the founder of The Beckley Foundation, a charity and NGO which conducts pioneering scientific research into psychoactive substances and drug policy reform.

“I am working because the task is a mammoth one. It was 50 years after I resolved to uncover the secrets of LSD until, via the Beckley/Imperial Psychedelic Research Programme, we secured the licences to perform human experiments with LSD,” she says. “Despite these recent advances we have made, there is still so much to do.”

“There is nothing quite like the breakthroughs that come with the research,” Feilding says. “The excitement of starting a new project – of seeing one’s research ideas realised in a laboratory – also gets me to the office every morning.”

She is currently designing three major studies which will launch in a leading US university and says she will continue working as long as it remains “productive, fulfilling, and fun”.

We might dream of spending our golden years sipping cocktails on a beach, pottering around a garden or going for lunches, but retirement can take some adjusting to. Suddenly having time to spare can leave some without a sense of purpose or structure.

“I love what I do, enjoy meeting people, and don’t really want to stop working yet,” says Lis McDermott, 66, a photographer who worked in music education for more than 30 years. “My husband is 12 years younger than me, so I don’t want to be at home while he is still working and I do worry about being without purpose.

“I don’t have children, so no grandchildren either – from choice, but I don’t fancy being stuck at home. I enjoy getting out and meeting up with people, and still feel I have loads to contribute,” she says.

Not only has she been a photographer for 10 years, but she has given talks, written books and ran workshops for businesswomen. “I have other stuff I want to write, and I want to continue to help other business people.”

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