Keeping active in retirement

For the majority of people, retirement from full-time employment marks what society sees as the beginning of old age. The trend towards official retiring ages and the creation of pension schemes began in Europe after World War I with pressure from trade unions to ensure that the elderly would have some form of retirement income. Previously, in many countries, elderly people who had no savings or close relations to support them finished their days in the most hated of institutions, the workhouse. They were virtual prisons for those who could not support themselves. The other major influence in creating an official retiring age was increasing unemployment. The elderly were encouraged to retire to vacate jobs for younger people.

Keeping active is by far the best antidote to feelings of uselessness, depression and ill-health in old age. For those who are self-employed, it may be possible to keep working well beyond the official retiring age. Many people positively look forward to retirement as a time for those activities they could not pursue when working. Among the healthier activities popular with the elderly are walking, gardening, leisurely sports and games, and belonging to social clubs. The prospect of further education or study and the pursuit of new sports has in recent years become increasingly accessible to old people.

One of the major benefits of such activities is the opportunities they afford of mixing with other people, thus counteracting the isolating effects of growing old. Everyone who is due to retire within a few years should consider the prospects carefully. He or she may be able to turn a hobby into a small-scale business. Also, many organizations, especially charities and other voluntary bodies, now welcome the help of skilled and experienced people in part-time administrative capacities.

For example, they can pass on the accumulated knowledge from their careers by giving advice on training or finances, if a retired person can offer those skills on a voluntary basis.

Problems of retirement

Retirement is not always regarded as a well-earned rest at the end of a hard working life. For many, even though the pressures of working in a harsh or boring environment are ended, the finality of no longer being employed is a shock. Retirement can create as much stress as the loss of a spouse or a serious illness, because it may involve losing suddenly and simultaneously several of the benefits of working such as social contacts, a sense of purpose, a source of financial independence, a regular routine and a source of challenge.

For too many people, retirement can mark the beginning of a period of boredom. The changed situation in the family may give rise to increasing stress. In most partnerships the wife was used to running things in and around the house all on her own. If her husband is at home the whole day they will probably have to divide the tasks, both of them taking on a new role. Even if a retired person has interests and leisure pursuits, he may be preoccupied with financial problems as a result of retiring. Loneliness is an additional problem if the new pensioner is widowed or lives alone.

In an ideal world people should be able to choose the age at which they wish to retire, perhaps reducing their working hours gradually in the closing years of employment. A high proportion of elderly men and women would want to go back to work if they were given the chance, but in the 1980s with high unemployment the probability is low.