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Golden Schmolden Years

Johann Redelinghuys is previously founder and chairman of Heidrick & Struggles South Africa, now The Director of the Chairman's Institute and of Portfolio&Co

We all want to retire at 65 and go live beside the seaside. Right? Maybe. But too many of us are too healthy and living too long to make it sustainable. And anyway, a lot of people are proving that you can work well into your 70s and 80s, and thereby create work for others.

Following the example of Warren Buffett, the key is to think differently about late-stage living. Retiring somewhere in your early 60s and then “keeping busy” until you conk out is now an outdated and impractical approach to life.

Developing an expectation of on-going healthy productivity and giving up all the droopy nonsense of the “golden years” would have a major impact on our individual lives and the greater economy.

Of course, Buffett is exceptional. Forget for a moment the “non-life-threatening” prostate cancer diagnosis. The fact is that the man is 81 years old, and is working with boundless energy and at full pace.

As chairman and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway business he still attracts upwards of 30,000 people to an annual meeting for investors and analysts, staged in a remote corner of the American Midwest . Being a self-made billionaire obviously adds some zest to his life, but it must be the overriding sense of purpose and respect for his opinion that is the real kicker.

Buffett is a shining example of a man making a real difference in the world at an age when, in most countries these days, people have checked out. The question then has to beasked, are we not depriving ourselves and the economy of 20-odd years of productive contribution?

Somewhere in the less healthy past it was determined that 60 is the stage of life when things should be slowing down. It is when companies start fretting about succession of the chief executive andpeople make plans for life by the seaside.

It is this psycho-social programming that sets us up for the downhill slide. These days, many of those that have retired are bored and, being in rude health, wish they had something constructive with which to occupy themselves. Others, with the help of the insurance companies, misjudged the cost of an extended life-span and now have to scramble to earn some cash for staying on after the accepted check-out time.

Examples of people being productive and doing full-time work into their 80s abound. Looking past Madiba, the queen of England and Robert Mugabe, and not counting the likes of Henry Ford or founder of IBM Thomas Watson, both of whom worked into their 80s, think of  Raymond Ackerman and Anton Rupert, who carried on until he was almost 90. Nadine Gordimer is still publishing at the same age.

Of course, most of these are people who have been self-employed, or have been founders of their own businesses and would not therefore rob some younger person from the opportunity of being appointed as a successor.

But let’s talk about more average people who don’t have their own business empires, who have been in employment of some kind for most of their lives. In several major markets there is now an increasing realisation that the baby-boomers are living longer, are keeping good health and need funds to stay in their medical schemes.

There is much talk of extending the retirement age to 66 or 67 and even 70. The drivers for this thinking are focused less on the pleasure of on-going relevance and productivity, and more on the needs of society, which cannot afford the accepted retirement structures.

In an odd kink in this thinking, riots and protests in France recently were caused by the suggestion that the French retirement age should be extended by a mere two years. It seems that the French are so focused on the pleasures of a comfortable retirement that even two more years sound like undue punishment.

So, not everyone wants to be productive until the final curtain. But let’s excuse the French, who usually tend to be a little contrarian and strange anyway.

For the rest of us, what is needed is, firstly, a change in our thinking. Next is to get ourselves out of moping too much about hip replacements, colonoscopies and enlarged prostates. Instead, we can now do the research and planning for something like a full-time consulting assignment, or a completely new business venture, or teaching/training/or coaching.

Instead of quietly becoming more and more isolated, full, late-life engagement means continuing to do real stuff and not to settle for being amused by the light entertainment and diversions offered by retirement communities.

In the US there are now about 70 million baby boomers. Most are in their deep 60. Imagine 70 million people adding 20 years of further productivity to their lives by thinking differently and gearing themselves for it. What would that do to the payment of their national debt?

And in South Africa, instead of compounding our unemployment numbers, remember that every retirement-age and skilled professional person who stays on in productive work creates employment for several of those who are unskilled. Now that would be job creation! DM


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