The age of unretirement

Posted on in Debates

TheGlobeandMail.com – Globe Debate
Nov. 10, 2015.   Margaret Wente

The spectre of an aging population haunts the land. There are now as many people in Canada over 65 as there are under 15. We all know what lies ahead. The pensions and medical bills of the boomers will overwhelm our ability to pay, and younger generations will be taxed to the max. People who forgot to save (and those who couldn’t) will spend their golden years eking out a miserable existence. Innovation and productivity will suffer as society becomes sclerotic. Our schools will be retrofitted as nursing homes for the dazed and the demented. The bike lanes of our great cities will be clogged with geezers on scooters, motoring to the Early Bird specials at Swiss Chalet.

Or maybe not.

A scientific survey of my immediate friends shows that none of them are planning to retire any time soon. They are designers, lawyers, doctors, marketers, entrepreneurs, artists, journalists, real estate agents, publishers, consultants, professors, and volunteers who do anything from mentoring inner-city kids to hospice work. Some are now into their 70s. An elite group, to be sure – probably like you. Their goal is unretirement. Their motto is “Hell, no, we won’t go” – to Florida, they mean. The ones who do go to Florida telecommute.

Mick Jagger once said he’d rather be dead than sing Satisfaction when he was 45. He has since recanted. People are wired to live useful and productive lives until they run out of gas. That’s what gives life meaning. The notion of “retirement” is an entirely post-Second-World-War phenomenon, the product of rapidly increasing lifespans and the creation of the welfare state. It should be abolished.

This doesn’t mean we’re interested in 60-hour workweeks and performance reviews from people 20 years our junior. Hell, no. We need flexibility, autonomy, and plenty of time to [insert passions here]. Fortunately, as the working-age population shrinks, the world is going to need us. Bye-bye, severance packages. Hello, retention bonuses.

Lots of people aren’t as lucky as we are, of course. Some keep working because they have to. Some can’t work, and eventually most of us really will get too old. But a world in which more people keep working part-time to the age of 70 or so would be both wealthier and more productive.

Some of our problems financing the grey wave will go away simply by encouraging people to work longer. We’re also underestimating the ability of markets and institutions to adapt. E-commerce and the sharing economy will make life cheaper for everyone. (Why own a car when you can rent a Zipcar, or use Uber?) New retirement communities will spring up where land is cheap, staffed by a new wave of kindhearted immigrants who will come on special “caregiver” visas and work for relatively low wages.

Meanwhile, millions of seniors on restricted incomes will discover the joys of living in Mexico, Panama and Colombia, where the weather is good, the locals are friendly, the health care is not too bad, and your old-age pension goes much further. Perhaps we will offer them bonuses to move there permanently. Perhaps we’ll even outsource the care of the terminally demented to pleasant, low-cost countries, where their relatives can visit them by Skype.

Here at home, we can cut health-care costs by reforming the guild systems and unions that have such a stranglehold on medicine. Much of the work done by family doctors could be switched to nurse-practitioners who specialize in elder care and pharmacists who specialize in drugs. We could also change the culture for the better by agreeing that those over a certain age (85? 90?) would be treated for comfort, not for life extension. Although the quality and quantity of life for the elderly has improved beyond measure, the end point remains relatively fixed. Once you’ve made it to age 85 or so, you are very likely to fall off the cliff very quickly.

Maybe I’m being too optimistic. Then again, I intend to surf this wave into the sunset, surrounded by my friends, my Internet (thank God for technology) and a few kind, compassionate caregivers. I plan to file my last column some time around the year 2040, to the strains of Leonard Cohen singing Closing Time. That’s the idea, anyway. We’ll see.

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