SINGAPORE: As a sociologist and a gerontologist, the retirement phase is of great importance and interest to me.
From the life-course perspective, retirement is the cessation of gainful activity or full-time work. It is a phase in one’s life which has accrued much attention due to the growing longevity of human beings and demographic ageing of most societies around the globe.
In Singapore, the retirement age has been increased from 60 to 62 years, and re-employment is possible until 67 years and beyond.
Today, more seniors aged 55 to 64 are working than ever before.
One reason why people are retiring later may be that attitudes about retirement are shifting as people live longer lives.
In 1996, I conducted 13 focus groups with people in their 50s in Singapore to gain insights into the complex perceptions and processes involved in the preparation for retirement.
In Asia, many are self-employed, they do part-time work in a family business or they are housewives. In the strict sense of the word retirement, many may feel that this group would never retire.
Yet, some housewives in my focus group research mentioned they looked forward to retiring.
When asked to clarify, one lady said she would like to hand over the role of running the household to her daughter-in-law so that she would not have to worry about cooking meals and keeping the home clean.
It seems that retirement can have a different meaning for people in various cultures and contexts.
Perhaps people retire late because they haven’t thought about what to do with themselves when they retire and the idea may be frightening.
The reality of impending retirement only starts to dawn when people enter their 50s.
Even though we all know preparation for retirement should start from the time we start working, the many responsibilities of providing for your family, personal needs and paying off debts prevent us from fully considering what we’d like to do when we retire.
Those who look forward to retirement as a time to achieve their dreams, to immerse themselves in a start-up or social enterprise, or take up hobbies and adventures that they could not indulge in earlier, would probably have a positive outlook.
For some others, it may be a time of uncertainty and soul-searching.
Thoughts on whether one should transit into part-time work after 62 or continue to work at the same pace even though one feels fatigued are commonplace.
THE ANSWER TO ONE’S LIFE STAGE
Another reason why people put off retirement is that their work keeps them going.
In a small study that involved interviews with older workers who had opted to continue working after 62, we found that their choice was driven by the desire to contribute to society, keep healthy, be socially connected and mentally active. Hence, retirement was not the answer to their life stage yet.
Some may wonder why someone would want to continue working when he or she could easily lead a more relaxing life.
Sociologists have explained that sometimes there is an intrinsic fear of letting go of one’s work identity. Many individuals have identities largely made up of their work role, particularly men.
Could it be that more people are putting off retirement, not because they enjoy the work but because retirement creates a vacuum in their lives?
In a recent news report on the loneliness epidemic, former US surgeon-general Dr Vivek Murthy said:
We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilisation, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s.
Many are afraid of loneliness – for instance, singles who live independently – and may hence delay retirement.
In 2016, 47,400 seniors in Singapore lived alone, about double the number in 2006. The figure is projected to swell to 61,000 in 2020 and 83,000 in 2030, according to news reports. While some seniors living by themselves may have family, others may not.
This trend of seniors living alone may outstrip the projection if we consider the trend of more adults choosing to remain unmarried in Singapore.
While not all people who live alone are lonely and isolated, I think it’s safe to surmise that in the retirement phase, retirees are likely to have unmet psychosocial needs if they do not have family members.
In some cases, they may have family members but do not share cordial relations.
A TRANSITION NOT A STAGE
In my view, retirement is not a stage but a transition, and the choices people make about how much to work bear this out.
Seniors who are healthy may enjoy their work and have a passion for it, including doctors and counsellors, and they feel that work gives their lives meaning and purpose.
Having a purpose gets more important as we grow older - it gives one the push to wake up and get going. It provides nourishment to the mind, body and soul.
In Singapore, most financially secure people who reach 65 years exit from the workforce – they’re the most unencumbered group who can make decisions about when to retire. After a few years of “honeymooning”, they may return to contribute as consultants or part-time employees.
Those whose health is deteriorating may have to leave their jobs, even if they are not financially secure.
The last category consists of those who have financial liabilities but good health – they may continue working for as long as possible until they bid farewell.
Voluntary retirement with sufficient financial means is obviously the ideal situation.
But as much as work is important to achieving this, active preparation for retirement is vital, for it paves the way for a more satisfying life stage in our golden years.
Professor Kalyani K Mehta is head of the gerontology graduate programme at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.
Read also: A commentary on making the best use of your golden years.