Opinion: not all older people want to retire or, indeed, keep on working so it's important that policy makers take a nuanced approach to the extended working life

Funny old month, Bealtaine. If it’s spring, we should have a spring in our step; if it’s summer, then we should be winding down. The Celtic festival of Bealtaine, a transitional point between the spring qquinox and the Summer Solstice, is traditionally a time to welcome back the light and sun, and trust in a healthy autumnal harvest.

A more recent addition to Bealtaine in Ireland is the annual arts festival, which celebrates creativity in later life, offering opportunities to engage with music, drama, art, film and dance, and promotes all that is good about active ageing. Bealtaine lays down a strong marker that old need never be boring.

But what does active ageing mean to older people and is this what they really want? The EU certainly believes so with its uncritical adoption of active ageing policies that embrace productivity. But this speaks to defining active ageing only within the narrow parameters of employment and an extended working life beyond the official retirement age.

From RTÉ Radio One's Sean O'Rourke Show, Ian Robertson, Professor of Psychology at Trinity College Dublin, discusses if age has a bearing on creativity

Governments have presented this seismic cultural change to work as a golden opportunity for us to flourish in a perfumed cloud of well-being, whilst building up our pension schemes. All of which is grand if those in their late sixties still love their jobs, are fit and healthy and view employment as a major part of self-identity. This is certainly the case for some and research tells us that those who can most easily afford to retire from the workplace are actually the ones most likely to continue working, or to "un-retire" post-retirement for reasons of self-fulfilment.

But sizeable sectors of the population feel financially forced into continuing to work beyond retirement age and view this as a form of punishment not opportunity. For a variety of socio-economic reasons, many near-retirement aged workers may want out. They may want to try their hand at something different, to travel, to re-discover family and friends, or just to take it easy by putting their foot on the brake, not the accelerator.

Both of these positions are perfectly valid. For some, their well-being and quality of life is improved by continued employment, but the converse is true for others. Those working in physically heavy, mentally demanding, precarious or meaningless jobs may view work as just another Manic Monday and see retirement as the get-out clause that they have long waited for.

Women in particular have been found to be at a disadvantage in older age due to their often fractured work history. Gaps in employment to raise children or to act as carer to dependents, coupled with a leaning towards part-time or casual work all impact upon the ability to build up credits towards a non-contributory state pension or sufficient savings to contribute to a private pension scheme. This can, as a recent study on mid-life rural women in Ireland suggests, create a perception of future poverty and a felt need to continue working.

That said, research also shows that many women work for more than pecuniary reasons. They may do so to secure a sense of purpose, forge social connections, gain status and establish an identity other than that of wife or mother. Whilst such women often emphasise the importance of job satisfaction over money, this nonetheless may leave them exposed to fewer resources beyond retirement age.

Enjoying the present moment is of particular importance later in life so the attraction of retirement may outstrip that of an income

A number of studies have looked at the gendered implications of retirement and the extended working life. While women may welcome the idea of new opportunities in late mid-life, and seize the time to engage in further education, travel, or new skills, research has found that many are simultaneously fearful of financial strain, lack of structured days, and loneliness.

The decision to retire or not to is also influenced by the work status of one’s partner (or by not having a partner), the perceived state of health of both at mid-life and in later life and the need perhaps to help out adult children financially. Decisions around work and retirement are also influenced by the value we put on time: socio-emotional selectivity theory suggests that enjoying the present moment is of particular importance later in life when older people become acutely aware of limited time. Thus, the attraction of newfound time in retirement may be so powerful as to outstrip that of an income, secure or otherwise.

From RTÉ Radio One's Morning Ireland, Justin Moran, Head of Advocacy and Communications at Age Action, discusses Citizens' Assembly recommendations around a mandatory retirement age

A good quality of life is related to perceptions of control and autonomy. Studies clearly show that those who choose to extend their working lives or choose to retire tend to enjoy a better sense of well-being than those who feel forced into either decision.

Such alerts suggest that governments and policy-makers would be well advised to adopt a more nuanced approach to the planning of the extended working life and pension-building that reflects the real trajectory of those in later life, particularly women. Older people who embrace active ageing, either through work or through an alternative pathway, must be similarly protected by policy actions against social exclusion in later life. To equate active ageing solely with work risks triggering its own Mayday signal.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ