The Fearful Fifties

I chanced across a TV documentary last night about retirement entitled “Work ‘Til You Drop” which, unsurprisingly, piqued my interest. I’d admit, I’m pretty bored with my own views on the subject and often think I’m stuck in a privileged bubble where my biggest worry is protecting my wealth instead of accumulating more. I’m well aware that not everyone is in such a position and that within the FIRE community we’re all at least looking at the same hymn sheet if not actually singing from it.

The programme covered quite a bit of ground, I felt, and tried to give a positive spin on some alternatives to hanging up your boots and trying to live on the State pension. There was an old bloke still working in Asda at the rather incredible age of 92 – an outlier for the majority of human beings, I’d have thought, and not too relevant to the lives of most pensioners. The cynic in me thought that Asda probably role him out as their flag waver every time they’re asked about their policy toward employing older workers while conveniently not mentioning that he’s given the responsible job of collecting trolleys and stacking shelves. When I saw a similar clip of B&Q I did ask myself if this is the best we can do with the aged – checkout person or shelf-stacker?  

The programme showed two other notable alternatives – a female entrepreneur who’d started a cosmetic business at 65 and an unemployed hairdresser in her fifties who just couldn’t get back into the workplace and was living on £73 a week social security. My sympathy sat firmly with the latter – this, I felt, was an absolute reality for the majority of people. Yes, yes, yes, I know we’re all movers and shakers in the FIRE community, all self-starters and self-sufficient, but unemployment in your fifties without a means of income is a terrifying and almost hopeless prospect for most unskilled or semi-skilled people. Even for skilled people, losing your job in your fifties is a different world from experiencing the same in your forties. Anyone who isn’t worried about this prospect is either in denial that it will happen to them or is luxuriating in the knowledge that they’re financially cushioned if it does.

Clearly the best course is to prepare for the troublesome employment years that begin at fifty and ends, potentially, when the State pension kicks in. Writing that, it strikes me that not a lot is written on that subject when it’s such a scary reality for so many people. Thinking about it, it happened to both my parents, but they both had workplace pensions that they were able to draw upon at 60, and thus only had about five years to cover with the “pin money” jobs they managed to find. (Plus they picked up their state pensions many years before today’s trigger point of 67 years.) I can only guess that most people have to assume that somehow they’ll survive if they lose their job in their fifties and can’t find another – worse things happen at sea and life goes on. Yes, it does and it does, but is that the best you can hope for?

I used to worry about losing my job in my fifties quite a bit, and it was quite a driver behind the saving and investing that I did in my thirties and forties. In my line of work – sales and marketing – being over fifty isn’t a massive selling point and I was well aware of it. When it actually happened to me I was financially prepared for it, and I cannot imagine the horror of the situation if I’d not been.

I also thought I’d be prepared in other ways to get back into the workplace – my skills, experience, attitude and application – but it just wasn’t that easy, which is why I sympathised with the unemployed hairdresser in the programme more than the entrepreneur. In my experience, behind many entrepreneurs there often sits a boatload of cash that can cushion the early days and be put at risk. I certainly thought of risking some of my retirement pot to start out on my own, but ye Gods, it seemed a much bigger risk in reality than it did when it sat in my dreams! In the end, I never had to test myself on whether or not I really did have that entrepreneurial streak that I always imagined was there and, on the whole, I think I’m quite glad about that.

I really hope, as the programme inferred, that the workplace is changing when it comes to employing more elderly people and, if I’m honest, I hope I continue to be one of them! One thing does seem to be certain though, there’s going to be plenty of applicants for those jobs if and when they come around.

14 thoughts on “The Fearful Fifties

  1. > I can only guess that most people have to assume that somehow they’ll survive if they lose their job in their fifties and can’t find another

    I saved for three years to make sure I could reach the other side once I jumped. I never thought I would ever work again, and though the three years were ghastly I remembered that each year I worked and saved was six years I wouldn’t have to work for Tesco on min wage, which sort of made it easier… Having said that I should have seen the writing on the wall by the time I was 45, I started the exit project at 49.

    Look around the office – if a working life is 25-65 then a quarter of the people should be 55-65. If they aren’t, that tells you a little bit about when you are likely to be leaving that role…

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  2. I have experienced redundancy in my 40s and worry about losing my job in my 50s and not being able to get another. Which is a big driver for FI for me.
    My father lost his job in his late 50s and was unable to get another. He ended up doing anything he could for pin money (gardening jobs mainly) and ration his redundancy money until he was able to draw his pension. It was a real struggle.
    I worked with a guy that had lost his job in his 50s and had turned to contracting to get periodic jobs to try and survive. His redundancy has completely ruined his life, his marriage broke up and he had to sell his house and now lives in a rental (can’t afford to buy) and struggles to find work due to his age. He manages to muddle through on the odd 6 month contract then move on to another job with big gaps in between. He has a small pension he can now draw on but it isn’t enough to cover his expenses and has to use savings and contract roles to keep him afloat.

    These stories worry me greatly and when I talk to people they are worried for their jobs. They worry that they will be laid off tomorrow if they don’t perform. Plenty of people out there to take over their job. My job doesn’t feel secure so I just save, save, save.

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  3. Here in Japan I see lots of older folks cleaning up the trash, either sorting it in huge apartment buildings for recycling, or picking up the trash in the streets. As a result Japan is pretty good at recycling and the streets are on average very clean (and no, it’s not because the Japanese litter less than the rest of the world – a popular myth – , it’s because these older folks clean up after them).

    I can’t imagine that it pays well, but I think it’s a cool alternative to doing nothing: part paid job, part civic/environment service. I wouldn’t mind doing this after retirement. Sounds more useful to the world than stacking shelves or working as a cashier.

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    • There’s an old guy regularly walks through my village in the mornings with a bin bag and litter picker gadget. He goes at pace too. I’ve thought it’s a great pastime, keeps him fit, must feel fulfilling and helps keep the village tidy. UK town centres and roadsides are crying out for similar.

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      • I accidentally stumbled upon the joys of litter gathering when I was back in Northern Ireland for a few weeks, caring for my ageing Mum after a hip replacement operation. Bored one day, I borrowed her “grabber” (which had thoughtfully been provided by Social Services) and à bin bag and starting picking up plastic from the local beach and coastal path. It was marvellous. Fresh air and exercise amidst wonderful scenery and plenty of interaction with the locals as curious passers-by would stop for a chat.
        Excellent way to pass an hour or two, whatever your age.

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  4. It seems to me that there should be two goals about “finances in later life”:

    Keep your expenses low so that you can live on your expected pensions (state and company).

    Save as hard as you can so that if you retire (by choice or otherwise) at age [50] you have enough cash to see you through to your pensions [65-7].

    The longer you work, the greater your pensions and the greater your savings, so the FIRE date becomes earlier.

    I tried to follow this with a FIRE age of 50 – I should have built up enough pension to match my current expenses and enough savings to get me through from 50 to 65/67.

    Any extra savings, or working longer, just improves my standard of living, at the expense of making most of that life “at work”, rather than “enjoying retirement”.

    Of course, not all of this (low expenses, high saving) is fully in our control.

    Seems to me, in this day and age, everyone should aim to be financially independent by 50. I doubt that even 10% of the population would see this as do-able. You really need to be in a good job, childless and not living in London/SE.

    I was 50 this year and have – according to my spreadsheets, amid a global equity bubble – reached FI.

    But I don’t want to give up work. Partly I need the social contact and a “reason” to get up in the morning. And partly because the thought of never earning another penny again is scary from a financial point of view (no matter what the spreadsheets say) but also because I equate “retired” with “old” and “old” with “nearly dead”. And that’s not me. Is it…?

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  5. Welcome to my world! – I agree with all you say, except that 10% of the population are FI by fifty. That’s a noble goal and I wish it was more of a widespread notion, if only for the reason that it might make those of us who have got there seem more common and maybe, as at least one blogger pointed out, less pleased with ourselves 🙂

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  6. My main customer is a big blue chip and having worked for them for over 20 years, I know a lot of people that are just hanging on for the best time to retire and counting down their last 12 months. It is bleak. I also know some that would like to move within the company, unhappy with their current role, have a different role that they could easily do and the people in the new dept would love to have them, but are unable to move and it is definitley ageism.

    I feel guilty being able to retire now because that was not my motivation, I just wanted to be my own boss. The options are just a nice extra. But I’m not ready yet, I still mostly like the job, the people. Just the commute that irritates.

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  7. Just looked at the link and it seems that the ASDA 92 year old, really enjoys himself, though I agree that ASDA no doubt make the most out of a happy coincidence.

    As for the hairdresser, whilst I understand what you say about working for yourself not being everyone’s cup of tea, becoming a mobile hairdresser is not a big leap given her skillset, she’ll no doubt have half the equipment, after that it’s a bit of advertising and word of mouth.

    I have three drivers over 65, two aged 70 and both work because they don’t want to sit around, they enjoy the interaction with people and they enjoy feeling useful.

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    • I tend to agree with your observation about options for the hairdresser, but I like to think I’m a “self starter” and I found the thought of starting my own business quite daunting. When you’ve been an employee all your life, you realise how much is taken care of for you, wages, tax, holidays, sick pay. And, not least, providing the work for you to do!

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