Clocking Off

30th April 2010

As you down a latte at the station, or sit in the morning traffic for hours, your thoughts may turn with envy to those who no longer have to tolerate the daily commute, who’ve thrown it all over and opted for early retirement. No work, no responsibilities, no stress: nothing to beat it, huh?

Heather Harris considers the pros and cons of giving up work…

Stair-lifts, Bridge Clubs and recipes for steamed fish… just a few of the fascinating topics covered in one of the retirement magazines which Peter Jones (no, not the Dragon, nor the department store) receives.

Peter Jones

“It would be funny if it wasn’t quite so sad,” this youthful 60-year-old tells me as we sit in his kitchen… where he now spends considerably more time than before, having taken early retirement from his position as Communications Director at BUPA, where he oversaw a £5bn business and a department of 24.

“I look at all these stereotypical pictures of retired people and think ‘I’m not like that’. The images they create are about a decade out of date,” he says, after consigning the magazine to the correct recycling bin (something he never had time to do before…).

Certainly, statistics show that more and more people, particularly men, are not waiting until 65 to gracefully accept their carriage clock and clear their desks. It’s now not unusual for high powered male executives to drop out of the rat race – and back into the human race – from as young as 50.

“And the perception is that they’re having the ‘life of Riley’. It’s not like redundancy which attracts great sympathy. All most people feel for people who choose to give up work is envy,” explains Philip Hodson, fellow of the BACP – The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.

It’s easy to understand why as I stroll into town with Peter for a mid-morning coffee. But the truth is rather different...

“I thought I understood what retirement would mean and it would be easy,” he says. “I had so many interests – fishing, cooking, tennis – and so many people and jobs that I never had time for…”

But Peter admits that he his expectation was “spectacularly wrong”, and says that there are two words to describe how he feels: ‘lost’ and ‘guilty’.

“‘Lost’ because your sense of purpose has been taken away particularly if you had a very full-on job, and ‘guilty’ because you’re not used to relaxing – especially during daylight hours!” he confesses, after finally sitting down long enough for us to talk.

And these are emotions which are very common, according to Philip Hodson. “Stress is addictive and just like any other stimulant it’s hard to come off straight away. So many people are defined by their job. They have to look at their business card to see who they are. Not surprisingly, when this is taken away there is a huge sense of loss.”

And it’s not only a person’s emotional side which stalls when the foot comes off the pedal, but their physical side too. Last October an American study of 12,000 people aged between 51 and 61 showed that those who had given up work completely ‘…suffered more major diseases and functional limitations than those who continued to work part-time’. The study also confirmed that ‘people who give up work after a life-time toiling can die soon after retiring’.

Seeing Peter choke on his cappuccino, I’m quick to explain that these are extreme cases. Science actually suggests that the reason we feel ill the day we slow down is simply the adrenal gland doing its job.

Adrenaline overrides pain, so every day that we wake up to a stressful job our adrenal gland acts as a natural pain killer. As soon as that adrenaline stops pumping we realise that our joints hurt, our head aches, we’ve got a sore throat and athlete’s foot!

For Peter, it was arthritis. “It flared up as soon as I stopped working and I’m sure this wasn’t a coincidence”.

So, with premature death and depression just a couple of the side effects of early retirement, what can we do to make the experience worthwhile?

“Practise,” says Philip. “You wouldn’t move house to a new area without visiting the area first, so why do we think we can go from working twelve hour days to nothing and it be easy.”

Peter agrees. “The best bit of advice I was given was to go part time, three days a week – not four, as this isn’t different enough.”

He also recommends planning something every day. “Nine months into retirement and I still make lists and tick things off to give myself that sense of achievement and this certainly helps.”

“And no daytime TV!” advises Philip. “The essential components for sanity are to feel effective, and sitting in front a screen does not fulfil this need…”

But charity work does. It may sound a cliché but again the medical boffins have shown that all those happy hormones are released if we do good for others.

Andrew Ross & his partner

Andrew Ross, 58, epitomises this perfectly. As IBM’s Head of Tax: Europe, Middle East and Africa his life was spent in airport lounges and ‘working flat out’ – until just a few days before his 53rd birthday, when the company agreed to his request to retire.

“I wasn’t motivated by money and I had started to lose interest in my job. I knew I wanted to do something more worthwhile. It’s different if your career is a vocation like being a doctor or musician.”

Five years later, Andrew is working three days a week for his local Citizens Advice Bureau and has never been happier.

“I work with a team of five who I can honestly say are among the nicest bunch of people I have ever met. They are not all forging a career so there’s none of that competitiveness, just a huge sense of satisfaction.”

Initially Andrew tried filling his days playing golf “but I soon lost interest”; then he tried studying fo a degree but found that it was the work for the CAB that he really enjoyed. Indeed, it’s a common misconception that hobbies will fill the gaps that work leaves. Research shows that, by their very nature, hobbies are to be done for short periods and almost with a sense of guilty pleasure attached. Take this away and they quickly become boring.

Unlike Peter, Andrew does not feel ‘guilty’ when he does relax, as his CAB work gives him that overriding sense of achievement.

“My partner was going to retire at the same time but she panicked and decided to stay,” explains Andrew, “so I don’t feel I have to justify my decision to her, as we both made our choice.”

And a wise choice, as divorce figures show that ‘absence really does make the heart grow fonder’. Put two people together 24 hours a day and molehills can quickly turn into mountains.

Or ‘les montagnes’, in Kirsty and Andy Mitchell’s case. This couple, who have two grown up children, are both giving up work in their early 50s to move to Northern France for a year.

“Andy’s brother died aged 50 and ever since we’ve lived every day to the full,” explains Kirsty. “We decided if we waited until our 60s to retire we might not be well enough to fulfil our dream…”

…which is to immerse themselves in the French culture, to improve their grasp of the language and to get fit by walking and cycling.

“We’ve been married for 30 years. I’ve worked for the last 18 and Andy hasn’t had a day’s unemployment since we met aged 19,” says Kirsty, who is just finishing her job as Development Coordinator at the Purcell School for Young Musicians in Bushey.
“He does laugh that having my undivided attention on him all the time may be a bit much!”

But science is on their side – physical and cerebral challenges undertaken together have been proved to be the answer for relationship harmony.

“I think if I had given up and Andy was still working as an accountant, it would have been difficult,” admits Kirsty, although she adds that they chose Northern France so he can still do some consultancy work, as well as being close to friends and family.

And perhaps they will send some photographs of their French adventures to those stereotypical retirement publications. People like Peter will then be able to see that it’s not only tin cans and newspapers that can be recycled, but life too.

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