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Meet the Returnment Generation For the Growing Army of People Working Into Old Age, Retirement is Now a Thing of the Past

By Sally Williams, The Sunday Telegraph

October 11, 2009 


United Kingdom


Sandra Wilkinson, 71, had planned to spend her retirement travelling the world with her husband, revisiting the glamorous homes they'd enjoyed when he was in the RAF. Instead, she spends her days driving around the Fens in her Nissan, selling products to help such conditions as irritable bowel syndrome.

In 2000, Sandra and her husband, David, discovered their pension with Equitable Life no longer existed. The company had collapsed, and the value of their policy had fallen by 75 per cent. Money paid in from years of work - him as a headhunter, her as a PA for a manufacturing company - had disappeared. "I was bitterly disappointed,'' says Sandra. "I'd worked all my life, and my final settlement was pounds 799 a year. You can't do much with that.''

So, two years ago, Sandra became an independent distributor for a natural health company. She attends breakfast meetings at 6.45am, networking meetings, working lunches and runs up hefty motoring expenses. Sandra isn't a weedy thing in a cardigan; she is robust and healthy. But her "retirement'' is infinitely more punishing than her job ever was. On top of her workload, she cares for her 96-year-old mother who lives nearby.

"Only last week I was thinking this is crazy. I need a rest. But I've got to do it. Go, go, go!'' However, she can't give up because her income lifts their lives from the brink of "just managing''. ("We have the odd meal out,'' she says, grimly.) Forget retirement, Sandra is now in "returnment'' - returning to work having already retired.

And she isn't the only one. David Cameron told the Tory party conference last week that he intends to raise the state pension age to 66 from 2016 - but one in eight Britons already works beyond retirement age. Twelve per cent of men and women aged over 65 and 60 were still employed, compared with 8 per cent in 1992.

"The number of people over state pension age who are in work continues to rise,'' confirms Keith Frost, spokesperson for the Age and Employment Network. "Really, they're the only group that has managed to swim in the opposite direction during the recession.''

The reasons are bittersweet: tumbling house prices, lack of pensions (nearly two thirds of private-sector workers have no employer-backed pension, according to the TUC), and low interest for savings. On the plus side, there is increased life expectancy and a redefining of old age.

"We've got Skins - Spend Kids' Inheritance Now - and 'grey gappers' rushing around the world because they feel so energised,'' says Frances Kay, 60, editor of The Good Non-Retirement Guide. "In my parents' time, retirement was the last 10 to 15 years of your life, when you looked forward to doing your garden.''

The over-65s want and need work, and Dame Joan Bakewell, "voice'' of the Britain's old people, thinks they should be able to. "It is inevitable that, with an ageing population, people will have to work longer,'' she says. "But as people grow older, they don't want the burden of full-time work: flexible hours and part-time work will have to become the norm. For many, this will be a welcome way to wind down their working lives. For others, things will be hard.''

Andrew Webster, 69, was forced to retire from his job as an English teacher at an independent school in London two years ago. "I thought I would keep going until 70, cut down my hours and hand over to somebody else gradually. But the new management took a different view. They put a notice of intended retirement in my pigeon hole.''

Retirement is a terrifying prospect for Andrew because he has four children. Louise, 25, is a care worker in London and needs a paternal subsidy of around pounds 200 a month. James, 24, is a playwright and comedian so he doesn't earn much; he recently moved to a new flat and needed pounds 800 for a deposit. Clare, 21, is at Bristol University, and on a full student loan, but still needs pounds 3,000 a year from her father. Ditto Rosie, 18, who is about to study biomedicine at Birmingham University.

"It's a bit of a struggle to keep the income and outgoings balanced,'' admits Andrew, whose pension is pounds 900 a month. "We're not starving, but it's meant we've dipped into savings.'' His wife's dream to cut down her hours as head of early years at a state primary has been shelved. Likewise their plan to walk through the Brazilian rainforest. The problem, of course, is that the school may have written him off as being too close to the grave, but Andrew has the responsibilities of a man in his prime.

"Thanks to the ageist attitudes of the job market, it's extremely difficult for older workers who have lost their job to get back into work,'' says Andrew Harrop, head of public policy at Age Concern and Help the Aged. "Unemployed workers over 50 have only a one in five chance of being in work two years later.''

John Shore, however, pulled out all the stops for his returnment. At 84, he's set himself up as a life coach, and has worked for nearly four decades since he "retired'' from the Royal Navy, as a Lieutenant Commander, aged 45. He became chief executive of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce, and then a fellow of the Institute of Directors. He trained as a life coach in his late 70s.

"I was not content with doing nothing,'' he says. "One of the reasons I keep doing what I'm doing is because I enjoy meeting people. It will obviously come to an end one day, but as long as I enjoy what I'm doing, I will keep going.''

Zandra Johnson, 65, hasn't so much gone back to work, as started it. Married to David, a retired executive with a shipping company, Zandra had never had a paid job until she set up a children's furniture company last year.

"I come from the generation where my husband didn't want me to work,'' she explains. "He said I could do anything I liked as long as I wasn't paid.'' So she devoted the next 40 years to good works. Then, 10 years ago, she went on a furniture-making course and found her mission. "I discovered a passion and, to my amazement, found I was good at it.''

But first she had to raise the money. She is, she says, "a Bogof queen''. "Each time I got a Buy One Get One Free deal I put the money I saved in a separate purse, every pound from a scratch card, and money given as a birthday gift. In 10 years I made pounds 12,000.''

Forward at 50 for Women, a course run by Prime (the Prince's Initiative for Mature Enterprise), galvanised her, and now life is a thrill a minute: all online selling, pitching, designing and launching. Her husband, meanwhile, does the cooking and shopping.

"Retirees might have to work, but they don't have to do something they hate,'' says Kay. "It's OK for a teenager or a young person in their 20s or 30s to have to do a grim job just to get something on the CV, but when you're in your 60s or 70s, for goodness sake, do something you enjoy. You're just too old to have to put up with something.''

Some names have been changed.

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