Going the distance

With the end of mandatory retirement at 65 and a lack of savings, many now talk about working well into their 70s. But is this goal realistic?

For Kamloops, BC, accountant Larry Campbell, never is the new 65.

“If you love what you do, why quit?” asks Campbell, who started his firm in 1970 and turns 80 this month. “I look forward to coming to work. I love coming to my office. I enjoy the opportunity to deal with clients. It’s a lot of fun.”

He may be an extreme case — most Canadians don’t plan to be working full time at the age of 80. But his workplace longevity is in keeping with the new reality. Longer lifespans and the end of mandatory retirement have meant that more and more people are working past the once-sacrosanct retirement age of 65.

This is regarded as a positive trend for those, like Campbell, who choose to keep working. But experts say it might not be such a good thing — either for companies or for individuals — when workers are forced to stay on the job past 65 out of economic necessity.

A recent poll by CARP (formerly the Canadian Association of Retired Persons), Canada’s advocacy group for older Canadians, found that half of those working past 65 are doing so for financial reasons. “And it’s not only for income,” says Susan Eng, CARP’s executive vice-president. “It is also for the health coverage. That’s a huge issue.”

“Our attitude is that if you can keep working and somebody keeps hiring you, that’s great,” Eng says, adding that CARP is firmly against mandatory retirement. “But for those people who aren’t able to keep working, or don’t have a good job to begin with, or get downsized, or just wear out, then let’s make sure they have enough to retire on.”

VANISHING SAVINGS

It’s well-documented that wage gains in many sectors have not kept up with the cost of living, which means that many people have had trouble saving enough for retirement. CARP reports that even before the financial crisis, the average RRSP holding for 55- to 64-year-olds in this country was only about $55,000, and high debt loads are making it harder and harder to save. For many who have managed to contribute to retirement plans, market volatility has meant lacklustre returns. Two-thirds of working Canadians have no company pension plan, while companies that do offer pensions are moving from defined benefit to defined contribution plans, which offer less security. At the same time, traditional safety nets offered by debt-plagued governments are showing wear and tear.

But how realistic is it to expect people to continue working past 65 and into their 70s? Is the human body meant for this? And what does it mean in terms of productivity and competency on the job?

NO EASY ANSWERS

Experts on aging do not have ready answers to these questions and are loath to generalize because we all age differently and so much depends on the health and mental acuity of each individual. Some of the generally known effects of aging include a decline in vision, hearing and memory, as well as loss of energy, which can, for some people, negatively affect performance on the job. Nevertheless, it’s generally agreed that staying engaged is often good for the brain and emotional well-being. On the other hand, being forced to keep working when one is ready to retire can increase stress and decrease quality of life.

Peter Lloyd, who retired as managing partner with Grant Thornton in Victoria when he was 60 and has since been busy on the boards of various organizations, says he sees a clear distinction between people who continue to work because they like it and those who have to keep working. “It’s more questionable whether that’s a happy thing,” he says of the latter. “And whether from a health perspective that is a good thing.”

And while he knows of fully competent professionals working well beyond 65, he has also seen the other side. “Certainly there are some professionals that I can think of who are indeed working later than perhaps is good because perhaps they are running into competency issues. And bluntly, there are people even at the age of 65 who have lost their edge, who are not able to embrace new ideas or new knowledge and would not be able to serve the public well.”

By new ideas, he means not only technology and changing laws and regulations, but also the ability to adapt to working with new generations entering the workforce.

“The workplace is much more diverse than it was in the 1970s, and you have to accommodate that,” Lloyd says. “You sometimes see the attitude of people my age who are really not able to grasp that and they want to go back to what I might call the days of the good old boys. Well, here’s a news flash — it’s not coming back.”

AGE DISCRIMINATION

Brad Meisner is the director of Research and Education on Aging and Community Health and an assistant professor in the School of Health and Human Performance at Dalhousie University in Halifax. The one negative he sees with people staying on the job longer is the problem of age discrimination.

“We don’t want to conform to outdated habits and assume that just because someone is older that they will be less productive at doing their jobs,” he says. “Unfortunately, age discrimination is all too popular in workplace settings. Businesses and employers should work with their employees, both younger and older alike, and expand their workplace discrimination policies and training to include ageism.”

Meanwhile, researchers keep looking for ways we can stay healthier as we age.

We’re all familiar with the basics — don’t smoke, exercise regularly, get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet and engage the mind. But a magic bullet has yet to be found.

Colin Farrelly, a bioethicist who teaches in the political science department at Queen’s University, says that the human body actually starts aging in its late 20s. After that, the risk for disease, frailty and mortality doubles roughly every seven years. So the older we are, the more chance for disease. But it isn’t known if that rate increases or decreases for people who work later in life. For some, working longer could be detrimental; for others, it may be a way of staying young.

Farrelly believes that a drug proven to actually slow the aging process in humans would be more important than, say, finding a cure for cancer. That’s because delaying biological aging would push back the chances of getting cancer in the first place, as well as warding off other life-threatening conditions, such as stroke and heart disease.

“Slowing aging is the crucial thing because that would change the game. You might want to work later in life if you didn’t have the onset of those health problems,” he says. “That would be the biggest advance in science and medicine of the century.”

Aging per se is not considered a disease, which means that research dollars are not applied directly to “curing” it. But drugs now in the pipeline to treat certain diseases, such as diabetes, have been shown to slow aging in some organisms. Human trials are now being organized. Research is also underway to find a drug that would mimic biological factors found in centenarians, who comprise about one in 6,000 people in industrialized nations.

THE VALUE OF EXPERIENCE

Then there is the question of the slowing, less-resilient brain. According to Farrelly, the gradual diminishment of cognitive function begins in one’s 20s and is “certainly noticeable” once people hit their 60s. But that doesn’t mean people necessarily become less productive or less useful in their field, he says. In other words, you should not quit your job just because you can’t beat the grandkids at the latest video game. Effectiveness at most jobs is usually not a question of brute cognitive processing power, and declines in such powers are often offset by experience. “There are a lot of benefits that come from 30 or 40 years of wisdom in a particular area of expertise,” he says.

Karl Riabowol, who holds a PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology and researches human aging at the University of Calgary, agrees. “Older workers have acquired all this experience, wisdom and background knowledge. Why should there be some mechanism that forces people to retire?”

The very act of working, he says, can often help older people keep their brains sharp and their senses acute. “Study after study will indicate that in order to stave off various forms of dementia and the lowering of mental acuity it’s important to keep your brain busy. It’s exercise. Just like you have to exercise your body.”

“Sixty-five is not a magic number,” he adds. “I don’t see why you wouldn’t be able to retain your ability to be a sharp accountant into your 80s. Why not? It just takes some effort to keep yourself in decent shape physically and mentally.”

That’s what Larry Campbell thinks, although he does admit that not everyone has the luxury of owning his or her own firm. For one thing, he has been able to delegate the technology-heavy, number-crunching tasks to his employees. “I don’t have the technical skill that I used to have,” he admits. “My skills are now directed more toward consulting. I utilize the various experiences I’ve had over the years in assisting clients.”

When asked when he plans to retire, this octogenarian accountant gives a one-word answer. “Clunk,” he says. It means he intends to go the distance.

WORKING PAST 65

According to the WHO’s World Health Statistics 2015, the average life expectancy for Canadians in 2013 was 82 (84 for women and 80 for men), up from 77 in 1990. Geobase, which compiles lists of world rankings, places the average Canadian lifespan at 81.76 in its 2015 estimates and ranks it 13th in the world.

The 2015 Sun Life Canadian Unretirement Index, based on a poll taken in 2014 of people over the age of 30, found that 32% planned to be working full time at the age of 66. Another 27% said they would be retired. (The rest weren’t sure or thought they would either be working part time or no longer living.) It was the first time in the poll’s seven-year history that the percentage of those who thought they would be working full time at 66 surpassed the percentage of those who thought they would be retired.

CARP, a nonprofit advocacy group for older Canadians, is seeking ways to help older Canadians in the workforce. Efforts include advocating for caregiver leave, encouraging insurance companies to lift expiry dates on private workplace benefits, raising awareness about age discrimination and encouraging employers to provide appropriate training to keep older workers up to date.

About the Author

Susan Smith


Susan Smith is a freelance writer in Toronto.

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