Guess what I want to be as I age

builder-154We often think of life as a series of sequential stages that follow just as day follows night: about 20 years of education and training, 40 years of work and family, then the dreamed of golden years. The challenge we now face is that the 10 - 15 years we dreamed of post-work is potentially 25 - 30 years.

Influential British historian Peter Laslett in the 1980s talked about the emergence of a "third age". He described it as a new stage between the end of mid-career and parenting duties and the beginning of dependant old age.

Shakespeare back in 16th-century Britain talked about the seven ages of man in his play As You Like It. As early as about 600 BC, an Athenian statesman, Solon, divided life into 10 periods of seven years.

The latest incarnation of linear thinking has come from the Commission for Financial Capability. They have further divided the "third age" into a Discovery phase (65 - 74) followed by Endeavour (75 - 84) and then the Reflection stage (85+). All of this suggests we are programmed to follow predetermined paths throughout life. But is this the way people are living life?

The answer is definitely no.

Life is more complicated than simply adding up the number of birthdays we have had, creating a set of categories and then conforming to a set of expectations passed down on how we should behave at different ages and stages. In fact, chronological age is now recognised as the least reliable measure.

American gerontologist and writer Ken Dytchwald argues that rather than seeing life as a series of linear and sequential stages, we will increasingly be mixing it up. Why have education just at the front end and defer leisure until we retire?

Margaret Mead once whimsically said, "It is utterly false and cruelly arbitrary to put all the play into childhood, all the work into middle age, and all the regrets into old age". Why not a gap year in your 40s, why not a degree in your 50s or 60s, why not retrain for an encore career in your 50s or going into business for the first time in your 60s?

Looking out 20 years, people in their 60s will not be talking about the previously dreamed of destination - retirement. Rather, they will be talking about how they want to live the next stage in their lives, what contribution they want to be making, how they can continue to make a difference and how they will support themselves financially. This is not the so-called selfish generation but a generation that cares deeply about the environment, their mokopuna, and making a difference for society.

They will be mixing it up, continuing to work but with greater flexibility, and moving between paid and voluntary work and leisure. Increasing numbers will be pursuing encore careers. Older people will have the same funded access to tertiary education to upskill and retrain as younger people. People over 60 will be setting up businesses for the first time and leading start-ups that are creating innovative products and services. Business development grants and seed funding will be available to them.

Is this the future? Yes, but it is the reality now. People are already choosing the age at which they move to the next stage in their lives or alter the nature of their working life. But are they calling it retirement?

The point at which we exit paid work will have little to do with the age of entitlement to an age pension. For a growing number the intention is to never retire in the traditional sense.

This quote from a person in their late 60s might well capture the essence of positive ageing: "Guess what I want to be as I age? I want to be myself ... and that may include working."

American researcher Gail Sheehy observed that the word "retire" has become synonymous with words such as discard, dismiss, resign, retreat, seclude oneself, be unsociable, go to bed. She, like many others, is suggesting we should retire the word "retire" and replace it with a word that is much more active. She suggests "redirect" - a time in your life when you redirect your energies, talents and time.

I am not sure what the new "R" word will be. Do we in fact need one or is it simply about being who we want to be and ageing positively?

Geoff Pearman is a consultant, facilitator, author and commentator on age and work.