As I write, people in Paris are waging violent protests against what seems like a very modest proposal to raise the State Pension Age from 62 to 64 years of age. As our SPA is currently 67 and is set to rise further in the coming years, we may look on in bemusement at the vehemence with which the French are resisting President Macron’s attack on what they see as their birthright to retire in their early sixties.
Whilst I am sure that the issue in France is politically more complex, it would seem that the French haven’t yet got their heads around the notion that spending around 25 years drawing a pension after a working life of just 40 years is unsustainable. Something has to give before the country is bankrupt.
I’m sure that, like you, I inherited the simple notion of a three-stage life. The first to be spent in education; the second in work; and the third in retirement.
That was true for the majority of men, and for women of my mother’s generation, it often meant that the second stage was spent caring for your family, whilst the third was spent living on your husband’s pension. And that pension was calculated according to the idea that you wouldn’t need it for long. Of people born in 1905 only 62% lived to 60 compared with 89% of those born in 1955. Of people born today, 96% can expect to live to 60 and current averages for life expectancy in the UK are around 82. It is predicted that most children born in 2023 will see their 100th birthday.
Very long lives: Blessing or Curse?
I wonder how you respond to the notion that our small grandchildren will most likely live for more than a hundred years? Do you intuitively see it as a curse because it may mean excessively long working lives and many more years spent in dependency and ill health? Or are you, like me, the eternal optimist who sees all the possibilities inherent in that gift of extra time? It seems to me that, as the riots in Paris demonstrate, we are in the middle of a major transition for which we are economically, socially and psychologically unprepared. We cling to that ‘three stages of life’ model because it is what we know and recognise. However, we must also know in our heart of hearts that the model has already broken down, especially for the younger generation, and that we in the older generation resist change at our peril.
More Life Stages Mean More Possibilities
You could argue that we have already become familiar with additional stages of life. As a generation, we invented the concept of ‘the teenager’ in the 1960s and we are currently inventing the idea of the ‘retiree’. Gradually a new stage of life has emerged for people aged 18-30. I was married at 22 to a 24-year-old and together we had our first mortgage. By 30 we had completed our family. Nowadays the response to a longer life is leading younger people to extend their adolescence by keeping their options open and exploring other alternatives. They are turning away from the commitments which we embraced at their age to pursue different choices and lifestyles. Again, we can view this as a curse because the cost of housing and mortgages is prohibitive for this age group, or it can be viewed as a gift of extra time to experiment, find out who you are, what you want and how you want to live this longer life before eventually settling down.
Younger for Longer v. Older for Longer
I wonder if you watch people in that 18-30 age range who are resisting the old patterns of life and are refusing to ‘grow up’ by taking on more responsibility, and think that they are wasting their lives? Maybe that’s because you haven’t yet come to terms with the fact that they have so much more life to ‘waste.’ I would argue that they are doing exactly what they need to equip them with the open-mindedness, flexibility and adaptability that they’ll need to successfully lead those longer lives. If they stay younger for longer, they can keep their options open and avoid being pinned down by convention and habit. If women postpone childbearing (perhaps by freezing their eggs or accepting surrogacy as a viable alternative to giving birth themselves) they can also extend the period of ‘playfulness’ until they are finally ready to settle down. This may mean that careers start much later and end much later, which will help to overcome the problem of short working lives followed by very long retirement.
Pie in the Sky?
I wonder how many of you are reading this with a rather jaundiced eye? It all sounds great in theory - but could it really work in practice? Well, I would suggest that it certainly can, and would like to put my own life forward as an example of what it feels like to experience multiple stages and multiple transitions. I reckon that by the end I will most likely have lived about nine different stages each with their own transitions and reinventions. At the age of 75 I am still working, so although I have received the state pension for 15 years, our revenue system ensures that this is returned to the state as tax. Perhaps my topsy-turvy life shows that a longer life presents many possibilities for reinvention.
Stage One: According to the Blueprint
Yes, to begin with, I was programmed, especially by my mother, to embrace that three-stage model so familiar to her own life. She supported the idea of college and training to be a teacher, but only in as far as it allowed for early marriage and the birth of children. I was encouraged to see a career in teaching as something which might fit well with my caring duties as a wife and mother.
Stage Two: Motherhood and Apple Pie
In fact, I loathed teaching and was happy to give it up at 26 when my daughter Anna was born. I then had no career as such for twelve years although I managed to earn money by running my own slimming club.
Stage Three: Back to the Drawing Board
However, I knew that I was just biding my time until I could have a ‘proper’ career. My plan was to educate myself to be more attractive to a potential employer whilst my daughters were younger. I waited until the youngest, Suzy, started school and enrolled in a four-year Humanities degree course. Part one of my long-term plan worked well and after graduating with a first class BA Honours degree, I landed a well-paid job as a management training consultant. I was 38 years old.
Stage Four: You’re on Your Own
A move to Sweden for a couple of years because of my husband’s career (deemed much more important than mine) saw the end of my marriage. I was 42 years old, 4 years into my first ‘proper’ job which I loved and which I believed could provide me with a good life living as an independent divorcee.
Stage Five: Work Work Work and Build Build Build.
A man I met on holiday just after my divorce told me that at my age, I had a snowball’s chance in hell of building a sufficient pension pot for a comfortable retirement. He advised marrying a man with a first-rate final-salary pension as soon as possible. Not remotely attracted by that idea, I just decided to work extremely hard and build my own investments and savings pot. I did that with a boost from an inheritance with which I bought a property in France, and I was still happily working and earning well when a family crisis erupted when I was 64.
Stage Six: Granny we Need You - Caring Concerns
My special granddaughter India’s birth effectively ended that twenty-six-year-old career as a management trainer and executive coach. However, it was clear that I was needed as a grandmother and was more than happy to step up to that plate. I worked out my finances very carefully and was happy to discover that I could afford to live reasonably comfortably without a regular earned income.
Stage Seven: Existential Crisis
I turned 65 on Christmas Day 2012. India was now out of the hospital, out of immediate danger and was being cared for by a Special Needs Nanny so that my daughter could resume her career, albeit part-time. I was very aware of my own potential longevity. I kept asking myself: “What am I going to do with the next 30 years of my life?” I knew that I needed to find a new interest, a new path, and a new challenge.
Stage Eight: Reinvention
The result of this yearning for a new direction was Look Fabulous Forever. My age was the biggest advantage that I had if I was to promote and sell makeup for older women. The pleasure that I have had over the past 10 years is almost immeasurable. It has never once felt beyond my capacity to cope, possibly because I am lucky enough to have had two daughters and a great team to shoulder the greater burden of running the business once it really took off. I also started to exercise with a Personal Trainer at 69 because I figured that I needed to be in better physical shape.
Stage Nine: Keeping an Open Mind
If I had 30 years ahead of me at 65, I now have maybe 20 years ahead. What to do going forward? Well, I’m not totally sure yet. I have sold my French house, which has allowed me to remodel my living space in Wimbledon in an attempt to future-proof it. I will continue to cherry-pick all the best bits of my role at LFF by making videos, doing live events on Zoom and Facebook, speaking up against ageism and writing these blogs, all of which I love. And I am open to opportunities to learn new skills - maybe to speak Italian as I have holidayed there for the past two years.
I feel very privileged to have lived in a way which failed to conform to those stages that many still think constitute a well-lived life: education, followed by work, followed by a comfortable retirement. I assume that the French are rioting to protect what they see as their birthright. My own life may have started off with a traditional blueprint but it had completely diverged from that map by the time I was about 40 years old. It shows that conventional wisdom is there to be challenged. Last week I was on a panel discussion called ‘This is What Over 50 Looks Like’ and I started by saying “Actually this is what over 75 looks like!”
It was that panel discussion which inspired this blog. As a generation we have had to adjust fast to the realisation of what it means to have so much extra time. This presents many challenges, but surely the alternative is very much worse.
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