Tuesday 21 November 2017

Pre-retirement planning is essential for mental health

Mind-matters...

Big move: retirement. Picture posed
Big move: retirement. Picture posed

Patricia Casey

The Government has announced plans to encourage people working in the public sector to continue in employment until after they reach the current retirement age of 65.

There has been a plan to gradually increase the retirement age to 68 over the coming decade. These new proposals are draconian. Those opting out of work at 65 or before will have their pensions penalised while employers forcing retirement on their workers, unless they can demonstrate just cause, will also suffer penalties.

We are told this approach is to help end the anomaly of people retiring at 65, but not being entitled, currently, to receive the State pension until 66. That is the virtue that is the spin, but in this instance the Government is trying to make a virtue out of necessity, and this is the pension crisis that is about to assail us as our population ages.

Neither is it a move driven simply by the altruism of allowing willing, skilled, and reliable people to bring their strengths to the workforce.

Nor is the motivation springing from an admiration for the wisdom of the elderly. Instead it is the changing demographics. Even before this proposal was announced last week, many new employees were being given contracts without any stated retirement age in anticipation of this change.

I fully support the benefits of working past the age of 65 for those who want to and for those who do not, to move on to the next phase of their lives, which, with increasing longevity may span a further 20 years, most of which will be disability-free.

People often say they wished they had retired earlier such is the enjoyment and fulfilment they are finding. Some retire because they are burnt out and feel they have no more to give. Others, forced to retire under the current law, are less sanguine and speak with some nostalgia, and a touch of bitterness, that their usefulness and role in society is transmuting into emptiness and long days doing, for the most part, nothing much.

I frequently see people professionally who have retired with little thought or planning devoted to it, who then develop a depressive illness. Loneliness, the absence of camaraderie coupled with the lack of any meaningful alternatives to work and the perception of being relegated to a repository for the aged, can lead to crippling depression.

A sense of hopelessness stifles any purpose that life may have without the structure, and organisational friendships, that work provides.

Some professions are more protected against the adverse consequences of forced retirement than others, as they allow for continuing employment, albeit in other forms. Those in the private sector are also somewhat protected. For example doctors can continue to work in private practice while teachers cover period of leave for their colleagues.

Trades people can also opt to continue in self-employment unlike civil servants or bank officials who are usually bound by their pension.

In Britain the trend towards longer working years is well recognised. The Department for Work and Pensions (2015) has identified a large increase in the percentage of people over the age of 65 who are in employment, doubling from 4.9pc to 10.2pc over the past 30 years. And for those over 70 the proportion has grown from 5.5pc to 9.9pc in the past 10 years. Later life working may sweep Europe as the population ages.

But what about stepping aside to allow a smooth transition to new blood? Should the creativity of youth not be allowed to germinate? Have the young not got a right to earn a living and prosper as much as elders are entitled to have their experience cherished?

There will always be a tension between these competing perspectives and society to date has opted for the former - ask any middle-aged person recently made redundant if they can compete with a younger person in the jobs market and the answer is a resounding "no". But with the changing international demographic, this trend is likely to be reversed.

Many who are currently in employment will be unhappy at being forced to work past the usual age of retirement at 65 while others will excitedly anticipate such a move. If workers are offered a choice then this could be a win-win scenario and the mental health problems that accrue post-retirement would disappear, while also capitalising on the experience and knowledge of those who believe they are "too young to retire".

It remains to be seen if the "stick" will work in this instance. I suspect that even supporters of the principle, like me, may revolt against the approach.

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