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Bored boomers to late bloomers

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As Australians stay healthier for longer, they need help to keep life meaningful after 60, writes Kelly Burke.

The third act ... Anne Beasley acted on her unfulfilled teenage ambitions and studied law upon retirement.

The third act ... Anne Beasley acted on her unfulfilled teenage ambitions and studied law upon retirement. Photo: Trevor Veale

As a teenager, Anne Beasley had a future mapped out for her by others. It looked as conventional and uneventful as any young woman growing up in postwar Australia could expect.

The eldest of a large family, it was assumed without question that what money was to spare would go towards the education of her younger brothers. The girls would learn to type, leave school at 15, work for several years, marry and become mothers. Anne obliged.

Now in her 70th year, she is midway through a master's thesis and has worked for the past 10 years as a lawyer, cutting her teeth as a 60-year old graduate in the world of legal aid and honing her skills in the Family Court.

John Sloan is now living his life-long dream, working as a professional singing teacher.

John Sloan is now living his life-long dream, working as a professional singing teacher. Photo: Edwina Pickles

As well as running her full-time legal practice in Coffs Harbour, the septuagenarian is also the regional president of the local law society and sits on the board of a local women's refuge. She is a co-convener of a charity which raises funds for an orphanage in Afghanistan and she creates original pieces of jewellery which are donated to charity auctions.

She continues to be a wife, mother of three and grandmother of seven including one teenage grandson she raised herself during his final two years of high school.

''I've always said you can do anything if you really want to do it,'' she says. ''I took my law degree one semester at a time, one assignment at a time. Now I'm hoping to do my PhD in my 80s. I shall probably be a perpetual student.''

In 1942, when Beasley was born, fewer than 7 per cent of people who reached their mid-60s would go on to live to 90. But today, having made it to 69 in good health, she has no reason to doubt she will get that PhD by her 80th birthday and join one quarter of the population who will become nonagenarians.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian men who are 60 today can expect on average to reach their 82nd birthday; Australian women will reach their 86th birthday, and both genders are likely to enjoy robust mental and physical health during most of those intervening years.

This boon in longevity has its downside, however, and it is not solely economic.

The profound change in life expectancy which has occurred over the past six decades has created a time span of 20 or 30 years between the traditional retirement age of many workers and their dotage.

An undefined new ''age'' has evolved, wedged between middle-age and old age.

Observing the huge strides made in medicine and lifestyle quality over the latter half of last century, the British sociologist Peter Laslett coined the term ''third age'' in the 1980s to describe the ever-increasing period of active years more retirement-age people were enjoying before decrepitude set in. And he challenged the prevailing wisdom that this 60-plus, largely middle-class, set would be content to aspire to little more than ''keeping busy'' with hobbies, travel, volunteering and grandchildren.

As the American gerontologist and author Ken Dychtwald put it, the third age had given the older person time to "replant [their] life and refertilise the soil''.

But the transition from mid-life work into a productive third age continues to be a journey without maps, says Dr Jane Figgis, a director at AAAJ Consulting Group who recently completed federal government-funded research on the subject.

''[These people] want to be of use, they want to do interesting things, they want to be taken seriously,'' Figgis says. ''They want more than two or three decades of endless holiday. But what they don't have is a road map. The transition to the third age is still very much a do-it-yourself thing.''

Hugh Mackay's research into baby boomers for his book Advance Australia … Where? (Hachette Australia, 2007) led him to a similar conclusion. Many Australians over 65 knew they weren't old enough to spend the rest of their days sitting on the porch or glued in front of day-time television, he surmised. They needed to find something meaningful to do - something more than bingo or golf. But what they lacked was help in defining what that something was, and then acquiring the skills to make that something happen.

People like Anne Beasley, who acted on an unfulfilled teenage dream of studying law upon retirement, are still a small minority, Figgis says. What most active older Australians desperately need, she says, are similar vocational advisory and training services enjoyed by school-leavers, to prepare them for what have come to be known as "encore careers".

The term was coined by Marc Freedman, an American social entrepreneur and writer described by The New York Times as "the voice of ageing baby boomers who are eschewing retirement for … meaningful and sustaining work later in life".

His think tank, Civic Ventures, was responsible for the creation of the Experience Corps, now one of the US's largest not-for-profit national service programs for people over 55.

Using the slogan "purpose, passion and a paycheck", Freedman defined an encore career as one that combined personal fulfilment, social impact and continued income, enabling retiring workers to achieve a social good while satisfying their own unmet passions.

"If the old golden years dream was the freedom from work, the dream of this new wave is the freedom to work," Freedman writes. "The goal: doing what you love, helping others and getting paid for it."

By definition, training for an encore career must begin at or after retirement age, the work must have a social purpose, it must allow autonomy but must also involve a serious time commitment - at least roughly equivalent to half-time employment. Above all, an encore career must take the person in fresh directions and be challenging.

Since 1998, Civic Ventures has channelled thousands of retiring Americans into educational institutions such as community colleges (the equivalent of NSW's TAFE system) to retrain for service careers focusing largely on the big social problems, both local and global: poverty, the environment, education and healthcare.

An example of this success is the EducateVA program which over four years channelled more than 300 encore career switchers over the age of 50 into schools suffering chronic teacher shortages in the state of Virginia.

The key to the program's success was that the candidates, many of whom already had practical experience in specific subject areas yet no degree, were not required to adopt a full-time student life. The accelerated training took just 16 weeks, with continuing coursework held over the weekends and online.

Yet despite more than a decade's proven success of such programs, attempts to establish a similar model in Australia have failed.

When Figgis began approaching TAFE colleges some years ago, the enthusiasm was encouraging, she says. Invariably the response from many academics and administrators was that it was a "no-brainer" solution to harnessing unmet potential.

"But for all the good intentions, there was not enough spare energy to initiate something not being mandated by [the government]," she says. "There are so many demands on what already has to be done, there's just no air left in the system."

With a comparatively poor record of public philanthropy in this country, it is likely change will come only through government policy. The federal Treasurer, Wayne Swan, recently called for "harnessing the life experiences and intellectual capital of all older Australians", justifying the move towards increasing the qualifying age for the pension to 67 in just over a decade.

About half the OECD countries have recently announced similar increases in the statutory pension age, but, according to an OECD report released last year, the projected gains in life expectancy in most of these countries, including Australia, will outstrip any expected economic gains from increasing the pension age.

Last year Peter McDonald, the director of the Australian National University's Australian Demographic and Social Research Institute, hypothesised that if all immigration to Australia stopped over the next 10 years, the country's population would grow organically by just over 1 million. But 900,000 of that number would be people over the age of 65. If all those people were no longer in paid employment, Australia would be facing a calamitous economic imbalance.

Keeping people in work longer has been the policy of both Coalition and Labor governments, as predictions by demographers estimate the proportion of the population over 65 will reach 24 per cent by the middle of this century.

But virtually all mature-age worker initiatives from either government have focused on the years leading up to eventual retirement, including an extension of the superannuation guarantee and a host of programs providing remedial employment services for older job seekers after redundancy.

For the increasing number of Australians facing several decades of post-retirement endless weekends, however, there are no formal resources to guide them in a meaningful direction.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, almost 150,000 retirees over 55 returned to paid work in 2008-09. But only a third of those retirees cited financial problems as the reason for their return to the workforce.

Almost half returned because they said they felt bored, or an interesting opportunity had come up.

Faced with the prospect of the interminable boredom of a planned retirement after years of dealing with an increasingly tiresome career in the public service finance sector, John Sloan, now 61, found his own path to an encore career. Almost half a century earlier, he had bowed to parental pressure and studied accountancy. Now he is fulfilling his life-long dream, working as a professional singing teacher.

"This music thing was always in the back of my head," he says. "It was always a dream … it's been such a great move."

For Professor John Webb, a former science academic based in Western Australia, an offer too good to refuse led him to postpone retirement and take up a diplomatic appointment in the Australian High Commission in New Delhi. Webb oversaw the science and education portfolio there for three years before returning to Australia to retire, but that didn't last long. At the age of 68 he is now the deputy director of the University of Melbourne's Australia India Institute.

"The biggest challenge was moving from an academic to a diplomatic environment," he says. "The glib thing I used to say about the transition was that I was very quickly told that in diplomacy there should never be any surprises. And of course in science and research, you live for surprises. So it was a deep learning experience. You'd be surprised at the amount of bureaucratic energy which goes into making sure there are no surprises."

Highly motivated and highly educated, these two men had the resources to pursue their encore careers independently. But as baby boomers enter retirement in a critical mass over the coming years, more resources must be dedicated to keeping this demanding generation active and engaged, Figgis argues.

"I abhor the hype about baby boomers and how when they were young they changed the world and will do it again when they enter retirement,'' she says.

"But what is certain is that baby boomers do have a unique advantage; they have strength in numbers. It's a great opportunity and it's also a great responsibility. We all have a duty to age as well as we can."

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