Time to retire retirement age... ‘I didn’t want to think about a time when I wouldn’t be getting up for work’
Should compulsory retirement be abolished? Celine Naughton talks to the people calling for the right to work as long as they want
When former RTÉ presenter Valerie Cox was recently awarded €50,000 by the Workplace Relations Commission after finding that the State broadcaster had discriminated against her on age grounds, it brought the thorny issue of retirement age back into the spotlight.
The ruling prompted a groundswell of support for Cox from baby boomers who argue that mandatory retirement is an outdated concept in the modern world. They identified with the journalist when she revealed on radio to Seán O'Rourke that she was devastated when RTÉ ended her freelance contract.
"I loved that job," she said. "I wanted to work, but that really wasn't the issue. It was the fact that once I turned 65, I was regarded as useless and wasn't wanted anymore."
With today's ageing population, growing numbers of Irish citizens believe it's time to put the notion of compulsory retirement out to grass.
"For decades there has been an expectation that a workplace will periodically refresh itself or clear itself out, but increased longevity - and a desire to continue working - makes this more difficult in 2018 and beyond," says Patrick Walshe, partner and employment law expert at Dublin firm Philip Lee.
"Advances in medicine mean that we are living for longer than our forebears. That's positive for us all, but it's problematic for employers who want to enforce retirement clauses or otherwise dispense with an employee's services once they reach a particular age, typically 65."
Justin Moran, head of Advocacy and Communications with Age Action, points out that while workers are forced out of their jobs for no other reason than turning 65, they can't get the State pension until they're 66.
"That's why there are more 65-year-olds claiming Jobseekers' Benefit than at any other age," he says.
"We need a more flexible approach to retirement. Some people can't wait to retire and we need to ensure there's a fair, secure State pension on which they can rely. But many older workers would like to keep going, either for financial security or because they get tremendous satisfaction from their jobs.
"We're living longer lives, and we need to change how we think about work and retirement."
When Chancellor Otto von Bismarck introduced the world's first state pension for workers over 70 in 1889, life expectancy in Germany was 45. In Ireland today it's 78 for a man and 83 for a woman.
"We have many years of good health to look forward to after 65 and we need to make those years count," says Ciarán McKinney, manager of Active Citizenship and Lifelong Learning at Age and Opportunity.
It's a subject close to his heart, as he's coming up to a significant birthday himself next year.
"I'll be 60 and I'm already planning the bash," he says. "Some of my friends and colleagues didn't reach that age, so what's not to celebrate? There's nothing to be afraid of about getting older. Give ageing a hug and say hello; it means we're still alive.
"I have a mortgage which runs until I'm 70, so I'll be working until at least that age. But it's not just for financial reasons. I feel people have far better health outcomes in later life by staying actively employed. I recently did a diploma in human rights and equality and I'm considering doing an MA. I want to continue learning and stretching myself."
In his job, Ciarán leads a number of training and development programmes including Transitions in Later Life (TILL), designed to help people prepare for a rich and fulfilling older age, and he says the earlier people do it the better.
"Don't wait until you're a year away from retirement; this is something you need to start thinking about mid-career," he says. "TILL was developed so that people from their mid-40s onwards could take stock of where they are and prepare for where they want to be."
Part of the programme is a three-day course called Changing Gears, which aims to support workers planning for retirement. When Janet Grayson, who works in the HSE, turned 64 last year, her boss encouraged her to sign up for the course.
"I said we don't need to talk about that," says Janet. "I was in denial. I agreed to do it, but very reluctantly so, because I knew that over the following three days I'd have to face up to the fact of my retirement.
"I'm a workaholic. I love the buzz I get out of work and I didn't want to think about a time when I wouldn't be getting up early in the morning to go to work. So I began the course with great resistance, but despite my misgivings, it was such an enriching experience that I wished I'd done it five years ago.
"I faced my fears, which largely centred around my sense of identity, and the difficulties of growing old and being old in society. And I realised that I can bring the same resilience with which I managed other life transitions to bear when I retire."
She adds: "At the end of the three days I had a swing in my step. There was a newfound optimism about myself and my future. I started to think, what do I want to do? I negotiated to stay another year at work, to give me time to prepare for my retirement.
"Now I've got a roadmap. I've taken back control of my life. I recently joined a choir, and I'm planning to do some pro-bono coaching work to help address educational disadvantage. Retirement doesn't mean that life has to stop. I still have a lot to contribute."
Dermot Higgins had just turned 55 when he retired as a primary schoolteacher on June 30 last year. That very day, he got on his bike and set out to fulfil a lifelong ambition - to cycle around the world - and he hopes to claim a new world record as the oldest man to do so. To date, he has raised €15,000 for Trócaire and hopes to double that.
Sponsored by the Freebird Club, which facilitates travel and homestays for the over-50s, Dermot pedalled 31,000km across 21 countries, camping solo and surviving on €15 a day, arriving home on Easter Sunday. And while Guinness has yet to verify whether he has broken the world record, he says it's not the only highlight of his extraordinary voyage.
"More important to me has been my journey of personal development," says the father of four from Rush, Co. Dublin. "It's been a life-changing experience, physically and mentally. I lost 15kg in weight, I'm fitter than I ever was as a young fella, and my social consciousness has been raised in ways I never could have imagined.
"If I had continued working into my sixties, I'd never have done this. People leave things too late. I think if there are other horizons you want to explore, go for it.
"I plan to spend the rest of my working life promoting respect for different cultures, highlighting awareness of the environment and sustainable living, and celebrating diversity and equality. This summer I'm opening a GogoDermo Around the World Café and Grocery Shop in Skerries. It will be a different kind of work, a new challenge, and I look forward to it very much."