Is the definition of retirement getting blurred?

‘Doing nothing’, ‘staying idle’ and ‘whiling away time’ have become old-fangled ideas in a world where ‘savings’ and ‘retirement funds’ are getting wiped out by inflation and rising standards of living

By Asha Iyer Kumar

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Published: Sun 3 Dec 2023, 9:47 PM

A tenuous truce has just ended, resuming the orgy of death and destruction in one part of the world. Closer home, the world has converged to discuss what needs to be done to save the planet from an impending inferno. Given the serious subjects that are currently making the headlines, I should be ideally speaking of grave things that matter.

But then again, there are well-versed people to address the weighty issues and brainstorm for plausible solutions. In my domain are the small things that have big consequences in the lives of the common man. They have their own diurnal issues to grapple with – family, work, wealth, health et al.

Among the many contemplations that crossed my mind in the past week was this – are people beginning to extend their work lives beyond the stipulated retirement age? Is the line between active occupational years and reposeful superannuation getting blurred?

Back in the day when I was much younger, 55 (in my native place) was an age to start feeling the fatigue of a life spent signing the muster, and people hastened to huddle up in the house backed by pension or gratuity. Retirement seemed like the frontiers of senility, after which life would slide into a purposeless ritual of living from one day of nothingness to another of the same nothingness. And 55 and 58 were inflection points to old age, decrepitude and emptiness.

Not any longer.

Although the current retirement age in many countries hover around 60 plus years, most able-bodied men and women are opting to push their effective retirement age by at least another 10 years. It means they are exiting the workforce much later, and even after they have exited, many are refusing to idle away their golden days.

‘Doing nothing’, ‘staying idle’ and ‘whiling away time’ have become old-fangled ideas in a world where ‘savings’ and ‘retirement funds’ are getting wiped out by inflation and rising standards of living, especially in countries where there is no social security to fall back on after hanging the boots. The income source has to be kept active, if not to previous levels, but at least enough to cover routine overheads and other social expenses that have now become incidental for a robust stint in the advanced years. The philosophy now is to keep leveraging one’s professional skills and resources till they are relevant to the market.

While money is a certain stimulus, more and more people are now open to the idea of staying in the kinetic mode, working till their spirits can sustain, for more than just financial gains. People who have departed from a 9 to 5 routine are setting up flexible work patterns encompassing a range of activities – from becoming active stock market players to offering professional advice as consultants. Retired? Yes, from employment, but not from work. Their expertise in their domains find various channels of disbursement, and isn’t it such a fine thing that men and women with a wealth of knowledge are now choosing not to moulder in a listless retired existence?

Whether it is necessary for people to extend their work life beyond the stipulated retirement age is a loaded question. To some, the thought of seeing no end to obligations and commitment might be overwhelming and unacceptable. But to many others, it is not about necessity, but of choice to remain relevant and functional.

To this end, hobbies and allied interests can also take the place of ‘active work’, and there are a substantial number of people who prefer to stay busy doing things that they didn’t get a chance to do in their working years. But even those activities are now shedding the leisure aspect and getting more purposeful and intentional. People are getting engaged in philanthropic projects and social enterprises that are equally demanding as their work life might have been. While technically these men and women can be labelled as ‘retired from service’, their commitment towards the causes they take up are sometimes more than what it might have been when they worked for a salary.

Retiring at 40 may have become a buzzword among the millennials, but in no way can one take that to mean terminating work life. From being subservient to a designated workplace, they may now move to making ‘passive income’ – another axiom that is capturing people’s imagination now – or to doing something that is more aligned to their inner call, while still keeping the tiller machines ringing.

As I move into the years that at one point I believed was retirement age, I realise this: life cannot be allowed to lapse into a passive mode until our mental and physical faculties begin to fail. In a world that is so dynamic, ‘doing nothing’ can be preposterous and an apology for life.

(Asha Iyer Kumar is a Dubai-based author, columnist and children’s writing coach)

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