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Retirement? What retirement? Why we need to work into our twilight years – and how

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‘We still haven’t figured out a proper way to harness the skills and knowledge of retirees to mentor and build the skills of new labour market entrants,’ says one expert. Here, we look at what retirement means in 2021 in South Africa.

In the 2015 film The Intern, the plot follows a 70-year-old widower, Ben Whittaker, played by Robert De Niro, who realises he is not ready for retirement. In an attempt to “reinvent” himself and re-enter the job market, he takes up a senior intern position at a fast-paced online fashion site run by high-energy millennials.

Although the days of walking out of one nine-to-five job after four decades with a gold watch, and swapping an office chair for a rocking chair, might be over, the reality for those in their twilight years, certainly in South Africa, is far from what Hollywood depicts. 

From forensics to the medical and legal fields, Dr Richard Holmes has been practising as an industrial and clinical psychologist for 37 years and continues to work at 74. “It is very difficult to discuss retirement as a concept in a country like ours where roughly 47% are working-aged people who actually don’t have jobs and might not ever have a steady job,” he says. “So I think it is imperative to note, particularly with the subject of retirement, that there is no one-size-fits-all case.”

Bernie Dolley, an NGO worker for more than 35 years, says: “Retirement in South Africa is a very complex and controversial topic. The more I observe in the line of work that I do, the more I am convinced that there is no such thing as retirement, at least from a South African perspective. If you mention that word [retirement] in the communities I work with, the answer is: ‘Retirement? What do you mean? There is no such thing in our community’.”

In 2000, Dolley founded Ikhala, an NGO that supports about 10 community-based organisations across rural communities in the Eastern Cape. 

“It [retirement] is a very painful topic that no one even wants to talk about because it’s like, what does that actually mean. I’ve got nothing to retire with,” she says.

“There is no such thing as a ‘retirement home’ in the traditional sense of the term in these villages. These villages have what we refer to as ‘service centres’ that primarily are made up of very old people who just cannot afford to be on pension because they are still supporting households on the government pension [of] R1,860 per month. So, it is a very different scenario to what we all initially imagine retirement to be… it’s a big area that requires social justice because it is just completely unequal.”

Rachel Janneman during an interview on December 6, 2012 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Jan Hofmeyr is one of Joburg’s oldest suburbs but the elder people who live there say a lot has changed over the years. Crime and unemployment rates have increased, and more people are using drugs. (Photo by Gallo Images / Foto24 / Nelius Rademan)

Dolley adds that Ikhala brings the elderly together in the service centre and offers them a meal, counselling, arts and crafts or just company. The centre is a “kind of therapy” since it encourages them to get off of their homestead and support their peers who have the same struggles.

Deputy director of the Development Policy Research Unit at the University of Cape Town’s School of Economics, Dr Morné Oosthuizen, says: “Certainly working several jobs over a career seems to be the norm, and changing technology has meant that freelancing has become more common. And freelancing is one of the trends that opens up the possibility of ‘slowing down’ rather than retiring. 

“But I think ‘society’ is probably too broad when one is talking about how we think about retirement. We need to remember that a large proportion of the South African population over 60 is either reliant on some combination of the older persons grant and familial support, or they are reliant on the older persons grant and they need to support other members of their extended family. For this group, ‘retirement’ means something quite different to the idea of ‘middle-class’/‘upper-middle-class’ retirement.

“In terms of the latter, I think there are trends towards more active retirement, so using their skills to give back, get involved in causes and often to remain engaged to some degree in the labour market. I think where we are probably lacking at the moment as a society is that we still haven’t figured out a proper way to harness the skills and knowledge of retirees to mentor and build the skills of new labour market entrants.”

The primary issue among the elderly is money, says Dolley. “We have found it is mainly women caring for entire households of young children because either their own children have passed on or have moved to a different city or even province and very seldom send remittances back home, so often granny is left to support from five up to 10 children in their households.”

And that’s not all – many of the elderly women she is referring to were “domestic workers in and around bigger towns or on farms”. When they reach an age where they can’t work anymore, there’s often no pension or allowance – “when it is over, it is over.”

“I am going to be 60 next month and there is no way I can retire. I have always worked, I have a home and a husband who also works, he’s a teacher, but from an affordability point of view, with life as it is, I just don’t have enough savings to be able to ‘retire’ comfortably. I will have to continue to work and thank God I am healthy and still have energy and I still have a job which I am hoping to continue for many more years to come.”

Magdalena von Solms, director of CMR Eastern Cape’s child protection services, echoes this feeling: “I have seen with colleagues of mine that they are working longer and longer, beyond 60, because they just simply cannot afford to retire. If they still have the strength and the ability and their work is able to accommodate them, they will hold on tightly to that work. Although there is a pension fund, it is not enough to sustain them.”

Von Solms says what Dolley encounters in the rural areas is similar to the urban areas where the majority of her work is based. She works with vulnerable families across the spectrum of the population where there is abuse, neglect or abandonment. 

Working in child protection, Von Solms gets to know entire families, dealing extensively with children’s caregivers. “What we find is that your caregivers are mostly older people ‘standing in’ for grandchildren or their children. Many times we have found that the child’s parents either leave to find work somewhere else and the family need to stand in for the children, or the age group that need to raise their own children have passed away or abandoned their children completely. So elderly members of the family like grandparents are standing in and they are getting older and older but have to raise children with a subsidy grant of R1,800 a month.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has made the situation worse as people lose their jobs. “Just this morning I had a conversation with one of my colleagues about the increase in requests for food support because the pension the elderly are receiving is only stretching as far as keeping the lights on for them and the family members they are supporting.

“From the perspective of the work I do, I think the number of older persons who retire with enough to have that wonderful, dream retirement is marginal. The majority need to take care of other family members, younger generations. I see this every day.”

Fear of retirement

“I would imagine that most people have some level of concern around whether they have saved enough to see them comfortably through retirement. We do not know how long we will be retired for, which creates uncertainty on the financial side. And we know that, as South Africans, we generally do not or cannot save enough for retirement,” says Oosthuizen.

And on top of financial worries, there are psychological concerns.  

According to psychologist Erik Erikson, people in their 60s are in the psychosocial developmental stage of generativity versus stagnation and after 65 shift to integrity versus despair. The former is associated with the need to give back, to contribute to society and to find ways to support the next generation. 

“Yet people are expected to retire and are in many ways simply discarded as no longer having anything of value to offer. This arguably contributes to the thwarting of these developmental needs, making the transition to a sense of integrity rather than despair harder,” says clinical psychologist Dr Natalie Kerr.

“Some people have spent their entire lives working in a position or pursuing a career to which they have devoted their lives, their energy, their skill, etc, and their work was how they derived a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Some of them have defined themselves and based their entire sense of identity on what they do. For these people their status and sense of self are directly related to their functioning at work. Retirement thus represents a loss of a sense of identity, status, sense of self, etc.

“However, these individuals are still capable of making a significant contribution long past their retirement age and the loss of their skills and expertise should not be regarded as insignificant. They can, and should, still play a role in society,” she adds.

Retirement versus reinvention

“Do you reinvent yourself? If you still have your physical and mental dexterity, then 100% yes. Because you have to. If you can reinvent yourself with a skill that you already have, then do it. Whether it is project management or consulting or volunteer work. Changing your occupation and adopting an entirely new skill can be difficult and risky as an older person, but reinvention of an existing skill can and should be done,” says Holmes.

Kerr points out that “‘reinvention’ is not the same as ‘redirection’. A person of 60-plus should be in a perfectly good position to change direction without having to start at bedrock. Redirections tap into skills evolved over decades and intellectual and creative capacities that don’t form overnight.”

When thinking about retirement, Oosthuizen’s advice is to not look at it as “a big bang event” where one suddenly goes from working and earning to not working and living off one’s savings, but to figure out how to transition gradually from one to the other in a “part-time retirement”. 

“For example, scale back to a couple days of work per week or part-time employment if that’s an option, or harness your skills to supplement your income. I don’t think that reinvention is for everyone or a necessity, and I think some of the options such as starting new businesses may come with considerable risk at a life stage where high risk is not generally advisable and so should be considered very carefully.”

With increasingly high levels of uncertainty about job security and job requirements often shifting rapidly to meet new demands, Kerr advises to keep learning, no matter one’s age: “Those who keep learning and have the capacity to adapt quickly to change are the ones most likely to survive a turbulent labour market. There is no reason ‘older’ employees would not be able to do this too… Of course, there will always be those who don’t want to reinvent themselves and who eagerly anticipate retirement, and that too is okay.”

And “don’t wait until retirement to ‘start living’”, she adds, because things may not work out as planned. “Rather do the things that you want to do while you can and start developing a range of skills and learning new things and making new connections so that you remain relevant in the workplace and also connected to people who are not in your usual work environment.”  

It’s important, she notes, that people don’t define themselves and their phases of life in terms of age categories and instead start using more initiative to keep growing, learning and up/multiskilling to remain relevant, but within reason.

“Try new things, but do so responsibly. Some people have big plans about starting their own businesses or venturing into markets of which they have little experience… It would be advisable for people to thoroughly explore and investigate their dreams in terms of the hard realities of, for example, running a business and learning the skills they might need before they dive in.”

Holmes shares his personal experience: “I have had the same career as when I started but I am using my old skills. You have to not only embrace technology and the gig economy but be willing to upskill yourself. It is never too late to upskill. One thing I have always held close is the idea that everything of yours can be taken away from you except your knowledge and experience.” We shouldn’t be afraid of competing with a younger workforce but be encouraged to work together. “Work with the younger generations. It can become very exciting and as cliché as it may sound, it really does keep you young.

“We are already living in a very different world. For the next generations, retirement will be incredibly different too compared with that of your parents and that of my parents. I think the next generations will become more and more mobile. You will have to maintain your level of technical prowess; you will have to continue to embrace new technologies; you will have to be aware of the difficulties that will arise from not communicating with people face-to-face… But in a way, the same basic rules apply. You have to form solid relationships if you can. Creating and maintaining life partnerships, whatever those may be, are incredibly important when growing old. You cannot put a value on what that means.” DM/ML

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  • Very interesting, and quite scary. Looming downsizing, retrenchments and early retirements mean those of us with platinum in our hair are going to need to reinvent ourselves for the 30 years gifted to our generation for the first time in history. See platinum-project website for a new perspective