3. May, 2018

The question is how old is too old to continue working?

While answers may vary by individual since it often depends on a person’s physical health, the nature of the job, and their financial situation, research shows that it’s going to become increasingly common to work past retirement age. For many retirees, retirement doesn’t mean stop working. Retirement can be the time to pursue a second career or a business idea you’ve always dreamed of. After all, it can be much easier to stay happy and healthy when actively engaged in meaningful, fun work. I’ll never forget my good friend John Clancy McGuire; he passed away over a decade ago at the tender age of 98. I met John in South Africa when I was a young commissioning engineer involved in a project at an aluminium factory and he was the metallurgical consultant for the customer. At the time I was 26 and he was 73, from the first day we met he took me under his wing and as the project progressed we became good friends. After its conclusion and I moved on to another project but we remained in touch until he passed away. Amongst a many good advice I received from John, the most important lesson he taught me was that “one is never too old to start again”. John’s story is a very interesting one and I still remember how he, one day narrated it to me: “Toni, when I was 56 my dear wife, 12 years my senior passed away suddenly from a heart attack, whist lecturing one of her classes . She was a Professor at Oxford's English Faculty in Oxford, England. On the day of her funeral I realised that I was alone, we had no children and had been married for 30 years. She was very English and I very Scottish her friends were my friends and that day I realized that I had no friends that where not from her circle. As the days turned into weeks I went about my daily routines that was getting up in the morning go to work at 07.00 and return home at 17.30. Financially we had always been comfortable and my wife’s life insurance and retirement plan left me very secure. So 6 months after my wife’s funeral, I resigned from my job of 30 years, as a fitter and turner at a small machine shop just outside Oxford. Closed my house and move back to Scotland. John continues with a smile on his face:  “I bought a small flat with a garden in the centre of Edinburgh and on the following academic year I enrolled at the University of Edinburgh for joint honours in Electrical & Mechanical Engineering a 6 years degree at the time. As I had a lot of free time and in order to assist me with note taking in class, I enrolled at secretarial school and got a diploma in Shorthand and Typing.As I wanted to learn another language, I discovered that the university offered German courses throughout the year, so I enrolled. As the years passed by, I got my honours degree in Electrical & Mechanical Engineering and my secretarial skills and dominance of the German language became good.

John’s story amazed me and as he said at that point he was already 63, fantastic, but he continues;” I had a good head for sciences and the investigation of the chemical and physical properties of metallic elements, compounds and alloys,  metalworking processes such as casting, forging and sintering always excited me.  So I enrolled again at the university and studied for a metallurgy degree, another 4 years. By the time I finished I was going on 68 and sitting at home having a cold beer I said to myself John what now? I read an article in a metallurgical magazine that a strong company in the Aluminium smelting and aluminium finished products in South Africa had awarded a contract to a German company for the installation of a new smelting plant, casting, and two hot rolling mills. So Toni I got in touch with the Germans and after some negotiations they hired me has a consultant for the project, off to South Africa I went. I was with them for 4 years and 6 months ago the customer has hired me to work for them as a metallurgical consulted with a contract of 5 years” at this point, I said but John how old are you now and smiling he said “73 Toni” but you will be 78 by the time you finish your contract and he answered “my friend if at the conclusion of this contract they offer me another 5 years I will take it”. I must say that he was very fit and healthy, went for a run of 5km every morning at 5 am and was at his desk at 07.30, his younger colleagues and fellow workers loved him, he could speak the other South African language Afrikaans and quite a lot of the Zulu language. He stayed in South Africa until the age of 88 and went back to his flat in his beloved Edinburg Scotland. I visited him when he was 90 and to my amazement was still very sharp with the same joy and happy person attitude that I had met 17 years prior. Never remarried and told me that at his death he was leaving his estate to an institution that assisted unprivileged South African youngsters to study at Edinburg University.

John Clancy McGuire you were a Great Person, Great Friend and I will never forget you and you have always been a great inspiration to me,Thank you. So has I started off this article my question is how old is too old to continue working?”  Are you too old to be working at your job? Well, if you are at work right now and you have a Sony Walkman clipped to your belt and you’re listening to songs on a cassette by any group that had its first big hit in 1960, chances are there is somebody above you thinking, “Hmmm… maybe.”

Pope Benedict called it a day at 85, but he is only one of millions who worked beyond the retirement age. Now we're living longer, shouldn't we think differently about work? At 85, the pope reached the conclusion that he no longer had the strength of body or mind to continue. His predicament was not unusual: we live in a time when we are less likely than ever before to be felled by a random infection, when even serious illness can be treated. Elderly minds falter, strength fades. But the body refuses to give out. It is a grim prospect – hanging on, contemplating loss of power and self – so it is not altogether surprising that old age has come to be feared or is viewed with a mixture of patronising "compassion" and loathing. The ageing population is talked about in doomy tones with the emphasis on expense, infirmity, "burden". What is actually going on is rather more interesting. Half the people who have ever lived to the age of 65 in the world are alive today. That is a phenomenal shift in human society. And, by and large, they are fitter and healthier than old people have ever been before. Pensions were dreamed up for a time when people lived a handful of years after retirement. The idea that we should now be able to look forward to 30 or 40 "golden years" is absurd. There is only a limited amount of golf anyone can play and walking on a beach with a silver-haired partner looking like something out of an insurance advert isn't really a life plan. Extended retirement isn't affordable and it isn't terribly good for us. All the research on healthy longer lives shows that the more engaged and involved we feel, the better we age, physically and mentally. Assuming that people will bow out of being useful because they have hit a numerical age – 65 isn't very old these days – is a waste of their capabilities. This is not to say that we will necessarily stay in the same jobs.  My friend John described what he did after 56 as his second act. The second act is starting to become a good idea in a lot of countries, where a cohort of later-life entrepreneurs, teachers, activists and volunteers seems determined to prove that there are second acts, in fact millions.

There is certainly a case for a second act on the grounds of allowing the next wave of managers to take over running the first. Still, in a lot of jobs, you tend to get very disgruntled team members if you don't make room. Some work is also undeniably better suited to young people; we are not about to see a new wave of 50-year-old fighter pilots. Research shows that young people invariably score better in cognitive tasks requiring speedy reactions. But in tests to do with making connections, assessing the quality of competing arguments and emotional intelligence – the ingredients of what we commonly call wisdom – people go on improving for a long time. Not everyone wants to stay in the job they have been doing for the past 20 or 30 years anyway (though evidence would seem to suggest that where that job offers lots of autonomy, influence and satisfaction – such as, say, managing Manchester United or being the world's most successful investor or leading television naturalist – people are quite happy to carry on). The negative view of longevity, then, as a period of inevitable decline and burden on the family and state, is pretty misleading. Of course it is important to focus on dementia, to look for cures and to be concerned about care. But the loss of self does not come to everyone and, with luck; it comes to most of us late. It is not the only story about getting old.Increased longevity, if we can avoid plagues of modernity such as obesity and death by congestive heart failure (CHF), offers us a huge opportunity to think differently about the life course. It is crazy, for example, that people have to build their careers at the same time that their children are young; that lifetime prosperity and status hinge so crucially on the effort of a few years. In doing his rather big job through his 70s and 80s, the pope is (though one suspects this is something he generally resists) a trendsetter. Bring on those second acts.