Changed Days

My son started work this time last year and, on his first day, I gave him the best advice for that event that I could: “Remember to sign up for the company pension!”

Of course, he didn’t need that advice because he’d have been automatically enrolled these days and would have had to register to come out of his company pension scheme, as opposed to physically signing up to joining it as I once had to. Doing so was one of the most important financial decisions of my life, not that I was aware of it at the time. I’d be lying now if I said I could remember signing on the bottom line that took me into the company Defined Benefit scheme, I’m just ever so glad I did. I don’t think I ever missed the money either, not even thinking about the subject until about ten years later when I started to become interested in investing for the future. Even then, I took the pension scheme for granted. After all, surely everyone was enrolled in some sort of scheme?

I read in the paper this morning, however:

A 25-year-old starting work in the private sector would have to put almost a third of their salary into a workplace pension to match the retirement benefits of a colleague embarking on a career in the public sector, according to a report by the Taxpayers’ Alliance, the low-tax campaigners.

Never mind the public vs private sector debate (if you can). What shocked me was that a twenty five year old would need to invest a third of their salary to get a decent equivalent of a “defined benefit” pension on retirement. It just highlights what a loss to the average employee the demise of those DB schemes has been. Not that they’ll probably notice, or miss, something that they never had. But it certainly makes me think that your fresh faced employee joining the workplace today has a tougher financial future ahead than I ever did. To be honest, if I had been told that signing up to the company pension scheme that I joined in the Eighties would cost me a third of my salary, I doubt I’d have joined. But my contribution was nowhere near that.

A few other things that have gone since those heady Thatcherite days when I joined the working population: firstly, the company car I was given was a total perk, hardly cost anything on tax and was way, way better than having to buy your own car. That’s not the case now – I opted out the last company car scheme I was offered due to the tax burden on it.

Secondly, my starting salary of £7k a year meant I could get a mortgage of £23k, enough to buy a small flat in my home town and get on the property ladder with a ten percent deposit. That’s almost laughable these days and has me wondering if I’ve got my facts right – but I know I have.

Thirdly, if I wanted something like a new TV for my flat, I had to sign up to a Hire Purchase agreement or save up the money. I was about three years into employment before I signed up for an Access Mastercard (Your Flexible Friend) which changed how just about everyone thought about getting into debt. Something that was almost shameful to my parent’s generation became almost fashionable and cool – paying for dinner with a credit card let you almost imagine you were Gordon Gekko from “Wall Street”, or Bud Fox at least. Surely that slinky mobile ‘phone wasn’t far away either?


I smile at those recollections now, but many of my early financial decisions I made happened without me thinking too much about them. Generally speaking, however, the basic things I assumed in those days were both sensible and achievable – pensions were a good thing, you should try to get on the property ladder early and you should be wary of debt. And, generally speaking, those rules are still sensible today. It just seems that for my son’s generation, they’re a lot less achievable.

Tench Detecting

As I approach the finishing line of official retirement – I turn 55 in November and can start to drawdown my pension, if I choose to do it – I spend time wondering what will make my leaving the workplace different the second time around? I recently listened to The Mad Fientist relate his “struggle” to come to terms with Early Retirement in his first year of doing so, and how he found his second year much more pleasurable and liveable than his first. I wondered, for about the thousandth time, if that had been my problem with my own “early retirement” – I was never really mentally committed to it, never really believed it was a realistic option for me when I was still able, and quite willing, to work.

One example of this – a friend of mine in his early fifties who recently retired spends about three of his afternoons a week playing golf with members at our local club. Despite having that option in my year off, I never “allowed” myself to take it up. Why? Basically because I believed that wasn’t the retirement lifestyle I wanted, although I became hard pushed to define what that lifestyle would be. All I could say was that I wanted retirement to bring more fulfilment than I’d find spending endless hours on the fairways with a bunch of old blokes.

These days I find myself looking for something, a hobby or pastime, that I could do in future retirement that might constructively fill my hours. Recently I’ve been watching on TV two old blokes struggle to come to terms with their own semi-retirement and mortality on the BBC’s iplayer. Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer have “Gone Fishing” in an effort to come to terms with the ageing process, Life, the Universe and Everything. The best thing about this programme, by a long way, is the camera work – it’s beautifully done, and England looks like Paradise. It’s educational too, at least for me. In the first programme they fish for tench. Tench? Would I even have know that was an English freshwater fish prior to this programme? And it’s inspirational. I watch the scenery, the skill involved in the fishing, the knowledge needed and applied, the camaraderie of the fishermen and I think, “I’d quite like to have a go at that, when I’ve got the time.”

Another TV show that’s very similar in style to Gone Fishing (and possibly inspired it) has become one of My Favourite Programmes of All Time. It’s the Detectorists, and it’s difficult for me to say why it appeals to me so much. Again it’s the scenery, the camaraderie, the knowledge required that underpins the hobby, the leisurely and reflective pace of the stories and the warmth, humour and humanity that exists between the main players. It leaves me thinking “But I want to be a Detectorist!” , even although I probably don’t. But I do want to do something that delivers the fulfilment, learning, community and satisfaction of the type that these shows suggest is attainable.

I’d have to say that golf does deliver some of what I’m seeking, and I’m happy with that. I couldn’t play it three times a week though because (a) it’s the most difficult, frustrating game ever invented and (b) it can be mentally and physically tiring. It can be quite a slog and, when you’re not in the mood, it does live up to the description of being basically “a good walk spoiled”. 

At the moment, I golf on a Saturday morning and Wednesday evening, looking forward to both outings. One thing I learned in my year off is that routine and structure are ultra-important to have in your days and weeks. The Fientist underlines this point too. However, you need variety too or your days can become quite stale quite quickly. If you’ve come from a highly stimulating workplace, as I did, to face endless days with nothing to do, it’s important to have mental challenges too – four hours a day in the gym really won’t cut it, mentally, no matter how many games of treadmill suduko you attempt to complete.

Retirement, early or otherwise, is often looked at for a primarily financially perspective. Can you afford it? If the answer is “yes”, good on you, start planning for what you’re going to do with your time and start investigating and participating in those hobbies before you reach the stage when you have real time to indulge them. That’s easy to say, of course, so the next question for me is: Will I now head to Amazon with the search terms “Course fishing” and “metal detectors” at the top of the list?