Listen to this article
Anita Pollack was shocked in 2006 when her employer, English Heritage, now an independent charity but at the time a government body, made her retire from her job as head of European policy because she reached 60, the organisation’s mandatory retirement age.
“I felt awful,” Ms Pollack says. “I enjoyed my job and I didn’t want to retire. It just crept up on me and I wasn’t prepared for it.” For the next two to three years she felt at “a bit of a loss”, missing her colleagues and the buzz of the work environment. Eventually Ms Pollack, a former Member of the European Parliament, adjusted to the change by writing a book.
The law was subsequently altered in 2011 to stop employers making people retire when they reach a certain age. In most developed countries, the trend towards earlier retirement, which had developed since 1970, has flattened off or gone into reverse.
Longer lifespans and savings shortfalls mean more people are staying in work for longer. Many governments plan to raise the age at which people can receive a state-funded pension in order to make systems affordable and encourage people to stay in jobs as the workforce ages.
In the UK, the average effective age at which older workers withdraw from the labour force was 63.7 in 2012, up from 61.7 in 1998, according to the OECD, the club of developed nations. That compares with 65 in the US, 59.7 in France, 62.1 in Germany, 69.1 in Japan and 71.1 in South Korea. In future, more people are expected to work into their seventies (see chart).
Some argue that later retirement is also good from a psychological and health perspective. “Too many people write themselves off when they are still young, fit and healthy,” said Baroness Altmann, formerly the government’s champion for older workers, last year. “This means they waste their talents and experience and miss out on the benefits of working longer.”
The evidence from hundreds of academic studies, though, appears contradictory. While some point to health benefits from retiring later, others suggest it can be harmful to health.
Story continues below
A German study this year found that retired people were more likely to rate their physical and mental health as satisfactory or better than working people. They visited the doctor less, got an extra 40 minutes of sleep a day and were more likely to take frequent exercise.
But a study of 11 European countries, published in 2013 by the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs, found that after an initial sense of relief and wellbeing, retirement increased the chances of suffering from depression by 40 per cent and having at least one diagnosed physical ailment by more than 60 per cent.
According to the American Institute of Stress, retirement is ranked 10th on a list of life’s 43 most stressful events. Some people adapt readily to it while others do not.
Keith Griffiths retired from his job as a partner in an Edinburgh law firm 10 years ago at the age of 48. “Having sustained a reasonable level in my profession I was fairly bored and I was pretty convinced there weren’t any prizes for being the richest lawyer in the graveyard,” he says. His wife, also a solicitor, retired at around the same time.
Since then he has spent his time hill walking, cycling, playing golf and serving as a trustee with various charities. “I am very glad I did it, though one has to work at retirement as a project and find different things to do,” he says.
Mr Griffiths acknowledges he is fortunate in having earned enough to retire so young. For people doing heavy manual work, or those on lower incomes whose life expectancy may be shorter than average, having to work longer for financial reasons can be harsh.
Jeremy Corbyn, Labour party leader, called during his election campaign for workers in “physically demanding jobs” to be allowed to claim their state pension earlier than those in office jobs. He said they should be exempt from a planned rise in the pension age to 66 by 2020 and 67 by 2028.
One thing that emerges from research is that “having control over the process of retirement leads to better health outcomes”, says Chris Brooks, senior policy manager at charity Age UK. Some studies suggest those forced to retire early through redundancy, ill health or “voluntary” early retirement are more likely to suffer financially and psychologically.
For many, the ideal is to retire gradually by cutting down on hours or working flexibly. In the past employers have been reluctant to accommodate this, but Mr Brooks says attitudes are changing. An impending shortage of younger workers means employers must learn to manage an ageing workforce better.
Mike Lowis, an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society, says: “Retirement is good for you, provided you retire to something, not from something.” He adds that it is important to plan for retirement and build up interests and activities so as to avoid “retirement shock”.
Retired people need intellectual, social and physical activities to remain healthy. These can be anything, from charity work to learning a language or how to play a musical instrument.
After Mr Lowis retired aged 65 from his job as senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Northampton in 2004, he worked as part-time lecturer at the Open University for a few years. He writes academic papers and books, plays saxophone and ukulele, and has just completed a distance learning degree in theology at the University of Chester.
“I just don’t feel I have retired,” he says.