How can we discuss ageing and retirement without a meaningful vocabulary?

Managing Director
in my prime
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I have often said that we need a new vocabulary to adequately describe the current changes that are affecting our lives in terms of longevity and extended working lives. This was accentuated last week at two events I attended on two consecutive days on the topic of retirement, health and well-being.  The first, at TAEN addressed the question Does Retirement Damage your Health?  while the second, an ESRC seminar in the excellent Re-thinking Retirement series, considered Activity, Unpaid Work and Active Ageing.

Both seminars were informative and thought-provoking, addressing a number of topics such as identity, job quality, the meaning of productive activity, motivation to work, subjective assessments of well-being and the role of continuous learning. However, at two levels, both also were ultimately frustrating.  First, insufficient attention was paid to addressing the range of objective and subjective experiences relating to retirement today, such that the first seminar really should have been entitled Does Working Longer Damage your Health?   Second, a failure to clearly define “older people” meant that the experiences of those within the fifty year age span of “older” were presented as if the factors relevant to the young old and those of significance to the elderly scarcely require distinguishing.

At every level and in every forum addressing these two issues, correctly defining who and what is under examination is essential.  Unlike birth or death “retirement” is not an unconditional experience. It has now become so varied in form and duration that in much the same way as the Inuit people have many words for snow, we too need a range of new labels to accurately represent different types of retirement and extending working. 

We also need absolute clarity about who we are referring to if we are to not to end up with unhelpful generalizations and irrelevant stereotypes.  Although chronological age is not a useful marker (a fit and active ninety year old may be more active than an unhealthy and sedentary sixty year old), we nevertheless need clear differentiation in terms of nomenclature between those who are arguably still enjoying their most active and powerful years, and those who are in decline and in need of support.

Another seminar at the ILC later this week Changing the Perception of Retirement will no doubt add some further interesting insights, contributing to changing people's behaviours towards work and retirement.  It bodes especially well that in the seminar outline older people are described as “a very heterogeneous group”.



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