• Philippa Dengler

Retiring retirement

Imagine that you are told in a few year’s time that the concept of retirement no longer exists and you won’t be able to retire. How does that make you feel?



Retirement is a concept we have all grown up with and it can be an emotive topic. Are your ready to start to change the way you think about retirement, work and ageing?

For me the story began in 2014. At that time, for various reasons, I was pretty unhappy at work. Luckily home life was great with my husband and my daughters then aged 3 and 6. One day, whilst playing with my eldest daughter, I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. I hoped that she would say something fun and childlike like a ballerina, or an astronaut or scientist. What she said though was – “I want to do what you do Mum”. Now that surprised me, because I didn’t think she really knew what I did. So I asked her “what DO I do then?” – and she said simply “ you go to work and sit in meetings and work with the computer and earn lots of money so that we have a nice life”. Ouch. I thought that was awful. What an terrible view of work she was getting. I spent the next few weeks pointing out to her all the different professions we came across and emphasised that the people doing it are not just doing it for money – for example the bus driver who is proud to take us safely and on time from place to place, the chef in the restaurant who is proud to cook a delicious meal for us and so on. To be honest I think that it mostly went over her head. BUT it got me thinking and I realised that she was right. I had settled for looking at my job as a way to pay the bills and save up for retirement with my husband in Spain! With almost 30 years until I was due to retire I decided then to make some changes.

After some soul searching I decided to start studying business psychology because I realised the topics covered where things that had interested me personally for years and complimented the knowledge and skills I had gained in my change management career thus far. It also meant that I had a thesis to write...and I knew what I wanted to research. Having worked for most of my life in financial services, in banks I was struck by a) how people aged 50 and above were viewed as old b) how many were made redundant following the financial crisis and c) how difficult it was for them to find suitable new jobs or redefine themselves.

Given that our society is ageing, we are living on average longer and healthier lives, it doesn’t make any sense to me to be classifying people as “older workers” already around the age of 50. So, that’s what I decided to research. I conducted desk research and empirical research into the topic what it takes for people to remain employable for longer. The resulting thesis is being published and will be available early 2019.

During this research I inevitably came across the topic of retirement. I discovered things about retirement that I previously hadn’t thought about which personally changed how I think about it and live my life:

1. Firstly retirement is a recent concept in the history of mankind. In the 19th century and before people worked until they died. In the 20th century the concepts of childhood, schooling, adulthood working and old age retirement were born. So it’s a construct that we have all been socialised with and feel like it is normal and right. But the concept of retirement was designed for a different era and is possibly not the right concept for the 21st century.


2. When the retirement age of 65 was set in Switzerland in 1948 the average Swiss man lived to be 66 years old….Think about it. It means that the retirement age was set so that on average people had a year or so of retirement. TODAY the average Swiss man lives to be 81.5 years old and that is increasing every year. Think about THAT! 20 years or so of retirement.

3. We all know from the press and political debate that financially the current system of retirement and pension doesn’t add up. What I also discovered during my research is that in terms of impact on people’s physical and mental health the current system doesn’t add up either. Many studies have shown that people’s mental and physical health deteriorates after retirement. And conversely people who continue to work in some shape or form remain active and healthy and are happier for longer.

4. And yet because we are still working with this 20th century concept, and continue to have a fixed age for retirement around 65, our structures and mindset around work and retirement have stayed the same and people approaching the age of retirement are considered old. And in Switzerland they are more expensive to employ because of the way the system is currently set up.

I think many young people, perhaps those under the age of 30, realise that by the time they are in the 60s and 70s things will look very different. But for the rest of us, who have grown up to see grandparents and parents retiring and assuming that’s what we’ll do too it’s much more difficult to accept that retirement is an outdated concept that we probably won’t experience in the same way. For me, and my husband, during my research it became obvious to us that we personally need to ditch the idea of retiring at 65 or 70.

In addition, we became acutely aware of tragic stories in our family and circle of friends in which plans for retirement don’t materialise because life takes an unexpected turn for the worse. I am sure each and every one of us has his or her own stories to tell of people who fell seriously ill, or died unexpectedly too early and having worked hard all their lives never got to experience the holy grail of retirement.

But, if we retire the concept of retirement - what do we replace it with?

In my research I looked at maintaining employability for longer as the answer. I looked at 6 discreet areas of activities and changes that contribute to remaining employable for longer. My husband and I are lucky to be able to plan our lives, jobs and activities to make sure we regularly, consciously think about these things. Alongside staying healthy and mentally balanced, developing a strong network, collaborating and sharing knowledge and continuing to be open to learning new things there were 2 areas that stood out for me personally.

The first is the choices we make about how to manage our career. How much freedom we allow ourselves to break from the norm of what is expected of us and from the social constructs that we have built up in our culture. In researching the different possible ways of working I came across a concept – which we have adopted for ourselves - called “retire-a-little”. It comes from a guy called Ricardo Semler and if you haven’t watched his Ted talk I can highly recommend it. In it he talks about living life now rather than waiting to retire or being faced with the diagnosis of terminal illness and being told you only have a few months to live. With his “retire-a-little” concept he has tried to open up the possibility of doing that for all employees of his huge company - at all levels - by selling them back one day week for 10% of their salary. Interestingly in his book he explains that only by selling it back did people feel it was legitimate and ok to do. He talks about how we have all learnt to answer emails at home on a Sunday evening but very few of us have learnt to go to the movies on a Monday afternoon.

Retiring a little – means for me personally and my husband that although the kids are now less demanding on our time we both continue to work only 4 days a week and use the other day to give us flexibility to rest, grow, be together and learn new things and thereby invest in ourselves as part of the plan of being employable for longer. It means we earn less, it means we don’t necessarily get offered the top jobs, but it means we live more now. It’s incredibly liberating to remove the target of retirement at the end of the tunnel of work and open up the playing field.

Another aspect of being employable for longer that resonated with me personally is how we think about ageing. I came across a woman called Ashton Applewhite who’s book I can also highly recommend. She talks about how ageism, discrimination and negative stereotypes about old people, is the last socially acceptable prejudice and how damaging ageism is - in life in general and - in the workplace. Having read her work and ideas I realised that I was – still am sometimes – also ageist. And despite working with companies to develop diverse inclusive cultures, the negative connotations around ageing are so ingrained in our society that they sneak up on me when I least expect them. I catch myself still today thinking “she’s too old for that dress” or “he’s too old to be doing that” or “she looks good – for her age” – at least now I don’t say it out loud anymore. Ashton’s main message is that ageing a natural part of life that begins birth and we should celebrate our ability to adapt and grow throughout our lives until the very end rather than write people off at a certain artificially set point as being “old” and therefore less valuable.

Giving up the idea of retirement has been liberating for me on the one hand and has inspired me on the other hand to look at older people and think about my older self in a different light. It also comes with an acute awareness of the responsibility that I have for myself to ensure that I look at all 6 areas and keep myself employable to a ripe old age.

I am passionate about this topic. I’m passionate about spreading the message to everyone I care about and everyone who is fortunate to be able to take their destiny in their own hands and think outside the socially constructed norms. Discussing the need to abolish retirement with people who are privileged and able to take their destiny into their own hands, is a great place to start. The bigger challenge though is how to change how we think about retirement as a society – that’s why I am keen to work with companies who understand that the demographic shift is occurring and that it will impact their business, their employees and their customers to develop practical solutions which will enable people and the businesses they work for to thrive.

I'd love to hear your thoughts. Drop me a line to find out more philippa.dengler@conscha.ch.

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philippa.dengler@conscha.ch

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