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Dream on – the reality of retirement


Dream on – the reality of retirement

For decades we dreamed of the good life that would be ours once we retired. DEBBIE TERRANOVA explores the reality of retirement and discusses how it matches up with the dreams.

Remember our frantic 40s, when we craved to get out, go away, do something different? But the demands of work and family, study, and finances, running the household and feeding the dog meant that we simply had to run faster.

Retirement promised the freedom to do whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted. It was the distant Nirvana we thought we’d never reach.

Retirement age is hard to define.

For some it is 60, when superannuation payments can be accessed tax-free. Generally, those with little or no super hang on until 67, when they become eligible for the age pension.

Some occupations have a mandatory age for retirement. For example, commercial pilots who fly long-haul routes are required to retire at 65. That is because international civil aviation rules prohibit older pilots from operating in most airspaces outside Australia.

That said, attempts by companies to terminate a person’s employment solely because of age can be challenged in court. In 2021, an airline captain of 32 years, who was dismissed by Qantas just before his 65th birthday, won his case and kept his job.

Legalities aside, the decision to retire (or not) remains a personal one.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 55 per cent of Australians over 55 are retired. In round figures, 3.9 million older Australians have left the workforce and half a million more intend to exit within the next five years.

About 3.4 million older people continue to work in some capacity, be it full-time, part-time, or casual. The average age that existing retirees left the workforce was 55.4 years. The average age that current older workers expect to retire is 65.5 years.

The decision to retire is influenced by a variety of factors. As a former human resources professional in a large organisation, I had regular conversations with workers on the cusp of retirement.

Of foremost concern was whether they would have sufficient income to support a comfortable, fulfilling lifestyle. As one retired colleague put it, “when you don’t go to work, everything you do (to amuse yourself) costs money”.

Some have little choice in the matter. The catalyst could be the onset of a serious health condition, having to care for a loved one, workplace change, or a restructure that results in job losses.

Redundancies are notoriously targeted at older workers. Even commissioning a new computer system can trigger an exodus of mature-age employees.

According to an ABS survey on retirement and retirement intentions, the top three reasons for retiring are:

  • reached the eligibility age to receive retirement benefits (46 per cent)
  • sickness, injury or disability (21 per cent)
  • retrenched, dismissed or no work available (11 per cent).

Women are four times more likely than men to have left their last job to care for a person who is ill, disabled or elderly.

Now aged in their 60s and 70s, most of the Baby Boomer generation have either stopped full-time work or are about to do so. With newfound freedom, most retirees plan to pursue their passion, be it exploring the world, restoring furniture, hobby-farming, or writing that novel.

But does the reality match the dream?

Google-search “retirement expectations” and you’ll find most results relate to money – superannuation, investments, pension incomes, retirement villages.

While finances are important and necessary, giving up your job and all that you’ve worked for is not easy.

YouTube has a multitude of videos made by retirees about their post-work experiences.

Worth a look is by Canadian couple, Tina and Norm, who are crazy about travel.

While many of their talks are about their adventures, they also tackle retirement myths and warn about natural slowing-down and declining health as we age. Their advice is to see the bucket-list places while fit enough to do so.

One aspect of pre-retirement planning that warrants consideration is the age of your spouse or partner.

If you are 60 and they are 10 years younger, retiring to caravan around Australia is neither fair nor reasonable. But here’s the kicker. If you delay for 10 years, your health at 70 may preclude active travel.

Unless you come to a compromise or make alternative plans, you may never get to see Kakadu or drive the Nullarbor. The window of opportunity might be smaller than you think.

Sociologist and author of The Reality of Retirement, Lyndsay Green, has studied how men perceive work and retirement (The Reality of Retirement – YouTube).

Based on in-depth interviews, she concludes that the identities of Boomer men are inextricably bound up in their occupation or their employer. What they do defines who they are.

She makes a valid point, and not just for men. Increasingly, women devote their entire adult lives to an occupation or career. When a person retires, their well-rehearsed role evaporates and, with it, their sense of self.

For a while, the losses might outweigh the gains.

Lost is the social aspect of work: the comfortable companionship, the lunch-room chit-chat, the satisfaction of pulling together as a team. People who work tend to stick with others who work.

On retirement, workplace friendships are left behind. How do you deal with social isolation and prevent loneliness?

Lost is the intellectual challenge of the job. At work, employees are valued for their ability to get things done, solve problems, contribute to collective knowledge in their field. In retirement, how do you continue to learn and grow? How do you keep in touch with an everchanging world?

Lost is the structure of day-to-day living. People who work have a routine. They set the alarm for same time each morning. They have breakfast, shower, dress, commute to work. For the next eight hours or so, they perform tasks, talk to customers, meet deadlines. Breaks for smoko and lunch are factored in. Back home, they have dinner, do chores, relax, sleep.

Retirement has no imposed timeframes. How do you distinguish one day from the next? How do you achieve anything at all?

Green refers to “retired husband syndrome” as a cause of conflict in relationships. After a lifetime devoted to work, both partners are suddenly thrown together with nothing in particular to do.

They are together full-time, every single day and night. In a traditional domestic arrangement, the indoors is the woman’s domain. She knows where things are kept, her housekeeping is finely-tuned and efficient.

Now that the kids have left home, she’s the queen of the roost. Enter a freshly-retired husband. Whenever he tries to help, he gets in her way. Their interests diverge, clash even. With little in common, conversations are strained.

To avoid the three destructive Ds of retirement – depression, divorce, drink – and to maintain their relationship, couples must renegotiate their individual roles and even their living space.

In early retirement, my husband and I often frustrated each other. While we wanted to be together, our different interests got in the way. After a long discussion, we decided to do our own thing on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. No questions asked.

While Sam pored over the stock market and caught up with friends, I wrote stories. We had our own offices, out of earshot, so that we could talk or think without interruption.

At five o’clock, we’d finish “work” and spend the evenings together. For us, the period between work and not-work was a time of flux.

According to William Bridges’ model of change, were stuck in the neutral zone, the nebulous uncomfortable space between an ending and a new beginning. Our neutral zone was fraught with teething problems, all of which were solvable because we were prepared to negotiate and make it work for us.

These days, pre-retirement options have expanded, thanks in part to COVID-19. Technology allows people to work successfully from home; the attitude of bosses has changed. People nearing retirement can work shorter hours, or step down from high-pressure roles, or give back to their profession by mentoring younger workers.

These are all positive ways of improving the work-retirement transition.

Six years on, we have settled into the rhythm of active retirement. We travel abroad and within Australia. At home, we’ve rekindled old friendships and taken up new hobbies. But this stage will not last either. Diseases of ageing are just around the corner.

We’re not there yet, but some of our friends are. The clock is ticking; no-one is immune. And some day in the future we will face the ultimate transition.

But I am pleased to say that withdrawing from the workforce does not mean withdrawing from life. Retiring is not defeat, but a second chance to discover your true self and to do the things you’ve dreamt about.

Retirement is the gift of time, so take a chance, grab the opportunity while it’s there.

Carpe diem. Seize the day, for we know not what tomorrow will bring.

 Debbie Terranova is a Brisbane author and researcher. Visit

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