My Say: Is this all there is to retirement?

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HOW would you react if your boss asks in passing, “Have you considered transitioning into early retirement?” Crushed, if you feel your decades of slogging for the company have all come down to a nondescript letter in your staff mailbox. Perhaps, positive anticipation if you’ve been planning to leave anyway anytime soon.

Many of my peers retired when they turned 55. That was before the Minimum Retirement Age Act came into effect on July 1, 2013. All are relying on their EPF savings. Some dabble in the share market to supplement their savings. Some take the long-awaited annual cruises and overseas travels, which too become somewhat meaningless after a while.

To avoid sinking into an abyss of idleness, some find a new hobby — like looking out for bargains with the wife, and working out new consumption-expenditure formulae to stretch their savings. Then it hits them. “Is this all there is to retirement?”

It comes down to how you map your route as you approach your final decades. A well-earned rest or as freed-up time to refire and keep the mind and body sufficiently fit to do your own thing at your own pace? Or to discover at last what fascinates you? No pressure. No expectations. Or you feel that you are inexorably sliding downhill. Your mindset does determine how you live out your remaining years.

If you are currently aged 60 in Malaysia and in reasonably good physical and mental health, according to World Health Organisation life expectancy figures, you are likely to live to 75 if you’re male and 78 if you’re female. Fifteen to 18 years — that’s not long. You might just break the law of averages if you keep your brain and body active. But to what end?

I see interesting positive correlations between the official retirement age and lifespan. Countries with the highest retirement age are in the OECD countries where the average lifespan ranges from 80 (male) to 83 (female). According to the 2012 OECD national labour force survey, the average age of exit from the labour force for men is 64 with this distribution: UK — 64; US — 65; Australia — 65; Japan — 69; and South Korea — 71.

The lowest retirement ages are concentrated in countries where the average lifespan ranges from 76 (male) to 78 (female). In Nepal, the official retirement age is 58. In Pakistan, Vietnam, India, China and Malaysia, it’s 60. In Singapore, it’s 62, although the Retirement and Re-employment Act requires that employers offer re-employment to eligible employees up to the age of 65.

Regardless of the official retirement age, three blocks of five-year plans do not feel that long to be what you can potentially be after throwing in the towel. As I was telling a colleague who is thinking of taking early retirement, we need to rethink our concept of retirement. It ought to be more than a time of rest and getting our affairs in order before death knocks on the door.

We may retire from the job, but not necessarily disengage from the continual process of “self-actualisation”, drawing on the knowledge and skills acquired from the workplace to reinvent and refire.

“What a man can be, he must be,” according to psychologist Abraham Maslow’s conceptualisation of our hierarchy of needs, the “desire for self-fulfillment … to become everything that one is capable of becoming”.

Studies on human resource management in the US and Australia show a relationship between life satisfaction among retirees and forced retirement due to poor health or involuntary redundancy due to economic rationalisation.

Those who have saved adequately tend to report higher life satisfaction during retirement and vice versa for those mentally and financially unprepared. Depression caused by a loss of identity and accumulative sense of irrelevance often lurks nearby. It gets worse when friends ask what you have been doing with all the time on your hands, with no work routine to define who you are.

I’d be retired by now if I had worked in academia in Malaysia. As a tenured academic in Australia, though, I can carry on until I’m tapped on the shoulder, or other challenging non-academic projects tempt me to leave. A few years down the track, I will no longer be a journalism academic, but something else — which will emerge when I cross the bridge to the other side.

Sure, breaking away from a routine professional life has its uncertainties. Post-retirement unpredictability, however, can be an exciting challenge in itself — besides the potential spousal friction with one’s idle presence in the home when — as the traditional breadwinner — one should be out at work.

Transitioning to early retirement (before age 65 in Australia) is a period to map out a structured programme in post-retirement. There is no official retirement age from the workforce in Australia, although the government has proposed extending the pension age from 65 to 67 for those born after 1960. Currently, those aged 65 who have retired and are homeowners qualify for a fortnightly age pension if their assets are less than A$202,000.

Malaysian retirees, however, may just be relying on their children without a national age pension scheme and a limited private pension market. Given the diminishing function of an extended family in an environment of high occupational mobility in an urbanised economy, that’s not feasible either for many retirees.

From observation, particularly in the cities, the proportion of nuclear families of four in a household could be higher today than during my time in the 1970s due to gentrification, urbanisation, higher education attainments, higher living standards, later average age at marriage (30 years for males, 26 for females), declining birth rates and migration overseas.

A new batch of retirees, those aged above 60, is projected to reach 10% of the total population in 2020, replacing the baby boomers who would be in their mid-seventies by then. Lest we forget, the new retirees are walking books of Malaysian political history and sources of wisdom. They’d know how far our national politics have regressed since the 1970s.

Eric Loo teaches journalism at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, Australia. He worked as a journalist and taught journalism in Malaysia from the late 1970s to 1986.

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 13 - 19, 2015.