Once upon a time, you worked until you could go on the pension and then shuffled off into the sunset. These days, there’s no such thing as a typical retirement.
Whether it’s down to baby boomers reinventing retirement, older Australians being forced to work longer, or COVID disrupting the best laid plans, is a moot point. While our retirement income system is stuck in a 20th century straight-jacket, 21st century retirees are busting out all over.
Some have retirement thrust upon them via redundancy or illness. Others enjoy the freedom to ease into retirement gradually, swapping the daily grind for part-time work, starting a business, volunteering, a senior gap year or passion projects.
Not only are we living longer than previous generations, but our expectations of retirement living are also higher. There comes a time for many when the body may be saying “give me a break” but the head is saying “just a few dollars more”.
Whatever the reason, the number of people working well into their 60s and 70s has almost tripled over the past 20 years. According to Ai Group Economics and Research, 32% of 65–69 year olds were still working in 2019, up from 12% 20 years earlier, along with 15% of those aged 70–74 (5% in 1999) and 7% of 75–79 year olds.
While some people are continuing to work well into their 60s and 70s because they enjoy it, in other cases necessity is the mother of invention. With the age of eligibility for the Age Pension gradually increasing from 66 today to 67 by 2024, the trend is likely to continue. SuperGuide spoke to three people whose retirement didn’t go as planned.
The second career
National Seniors chief advocate, Ian Henschke, a former teacher and journalist, has experienced a typically atypical ‘retirement’.
Around five years ago, at age 61, Ian Henschke retired from the ABC on a good defined benefits pension. Then almost immediately he was offered the job at National Seniors.
“I didn’t have to work but I was lucky to be offered a job and my wife said go for it.” So he did.
Around the same time his wife was made redundant and despite professional qualifications had trouble finding full-time work. With teenage children, a joint retirement heading off in a camper van wasn’t an option.
“I wanted (the children) to see a role model of a Dad who is working.” He still does, but he also feels it’s important to stay engaged with society at some level and points to famous Australians like Ita Buttrose, Gerry Harvey, Gina Rinehart and Rupert Murdoch who are all still contributing in their 60s, 70s and 80s.
So, at age 66 he is considering another five-year contract. And his wife has been elected to local council while studying part time at university.
“It’s been a fascinating time – ageing has become one of the main issues facing society.” Barely a week goes by without a new report on facets of ageing and retirement, with the Royal Commission into aged care and the Retirement Income Review two of the biggest. “COVID has also forced us to look at how we value older members of society. “I find work both exciting and draining. Work is also good for discipline because it forces me to keep fit, eat and sleep well to be ready for early morning calls.
“It’s up to individual choice, but there’s no reason you have to access your super at 60 and say it’s time for me to step aside. There are only so many times you can wash your car.”
Henschke says over the past 25 years late-life fathers have become more common. And men and women are more likely to have older children still living at home at an age when their own parents had already retired.
Life is often complex and rarely goes completely to plan.
The part-time business
The lives of today’s 50-plus Australian women are also complex in ways their mother’s lives were not.
When Perrie Croshaw sold her online holiday accommodation business on the NSW South Coast in 2017 at age 61, the aim was to set herself up for retirement and slow down a little.
Like many women of her generation, she entered her 50s with very little in superannuation. “I had time out to raise my children and I worked overseas before that.” Divorce also hammered home the point that a man was not a financial plan.
With the sale proceeds from her business, she bought an investment apartment outright that she plans to live in eventually. When that happens, she’ll sell her current home to fund her retirement.
“It was the perfect time for me. Mum was in a nursing home nearby so I could visit during the week without feeling I was taking my eyes off the ball at work.”
Although she didn’t need to keep working after selling up, she wasn’t ready for retirement.
“I would have gone mad just knitting. The thing you miss when you sell a business is the loss of society – it was like family. We had people in their 20s, 30s and 70s and we would bring in cakes to the office to share.
“I’m single and haven’t got a partner to buy a Winnebago and travel the country, so I got back on the horse.”
Rather than wind down, she’s busier than ever with a mix of work and passion projects.
She and a friend started a small property sales business on a part-time basis but sold it in June 2021 due in part to COVID. “As the property market heated up, there were fewer properties on the market and more competition from other agents, so we had to reduce commissions. We also had to write a COVID plan, and with most buyers coming from Sydney there was a heightened level of risk.”
During the COVID crisis, her mother passed away. “That’s made such a big difference to my plans. It’s so sad but it also opens up opportunities for travel, which I haven’t been able to think about for decades.”
These days she works part-time writing for her local paper. She helps her local community organisation with fundraising and grant applications and is co-founder and organiser of the Shoalhaven Bird Haven festival, which will be back in 2022 after a COVID hiatus.
For the time being at least, the traditional notion of retirement isn’t even on the horizon.
The senior gap year
Chris Herrmann was 62 when his wife of 40 years suddenly passed away five years ago.
“The suddenness of it brought home that we’re not here forever,” he says. That got him thinking about a break from his normal routine as a transition to another life stage.
What came next was a surprise even to himself.
“I used to joke about kids going off on a gap year and that they should get a job like the rest of us.” Not anymore.
“As we get older, we get stuck in our comfort zone. One person was stopping me from doing a trip and that was me. I kept thinking I’m too old, I’d be travelling alone, what would happen if I got sick or had a heart attack.”
At the time, he had a small online business that he could operate from anywhere. So, he sold or stored his possessions and bought a round-the-world ticket with three stop-offs on three continents. First stop was Spain and he played it by ear from there, eventually travelling to Central America and Southeast Asia, staying mostly in hostels alongside young backpackers.
“Even though I was travelling alone I was never lonely.” With three kids and grandkids back in Australia, he says he spoke to them more regularly while he was away than he did when home in Perth.
Towards the end of his gap year, he sold his business as the seeds of a new life emerged. “It’s never been my intention to retire,” he says.
His book My senior gap year is a record of his travels and a call to others his age to set off on their own adventure. He also set up an online course showing people how to travel the world as an independent traveller. Days later, COVID hit, so he pivoted to travelling around Australia in a 4WD camper van.
“In the next couple of years, I’d like to set up travel programs with house and car swaps so people overseas can do what we’ve done travelling around Australia.”
While it took a crisis for Herrmann to make a radical life change, he urges even comfortably married couples not to get stuck in routine.
“Sometimes you need to create a crisis so one is not thrust on you,” he says.
The takeaway is there’s no end to the possibilities for retirement – it can be whatever you want it to be.