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3 October 2011

As we wander through our allotted time on this good earth how often do we stop to ponder how we got to where we are today?

Business gurus advise us to write down our goals but for many of us we have a Mr. Micawber attitude and plod on following the Dickensian principle of ‘something will turn up’. Being of a positive nature, this simple principle has been my general philosophy to which I have adhered over the years.

However, having said that, I am beginning to wonder if 21st century life still affords us the luxury of this laissez faire method of plotting one’s life trajectory? I once was amazed by a client and good friend of mine, then probably fifteen years my junior, who talked of his ‘life plan’,  a phrase that was both new and seemed on first hearing to demonstrate supreme organisation.  At the time this individual was married with two young children and on the upward slopes of a very promising career in FTSE 100 company, clearly destined to become a captain of industry in his given field. He moved abroad with his family, had another child and eventually came back to the UK to work in the company’s London head office.

Then one day he fell down in the street for no apparent reason and woke up in hospital having no recollection of what had happened. Eminent doctors undertook tests and could find no explanation and eventually put it down to a  ‘very hot summer’s day’. He was 39 years old. Months later he started having bad headaches and after further exhaustive tests and scans they discovered a brain tumour. Surgery failed to stem the malignancy and within eighteen months, his wife and mother of three children under ten years of age, was a widow. Since then the idea of a ‘life plan’ has lost its appeal to me. Carpe Diem is my maxim: ‘Seize the Day’. My father gave me good advice as a youngster: ‘never look back and enjoy every day’.

For many young people and for plenty of us oldies too, life has become more difficult to manage. For the young there is the uncertainty of employment, enormous education debts, the inability to raise enough money to buy a home and increasing pressure in the work place to deliver, or else! On the flip side there has been no conscripted wars, food and drink is relatively cheap, air travel to destinations that a generation ago was the preserve of the very wealthy, is in the reach of most that are in work. There is now immense freedom to do and say as one pleases (where political correctness allows!). But is this generation more content than the post war ‘babyboomers’ who grew up in the 60s? I suspect not.

So what of those babyboomers who are retired or approaching retirement? Those lucky enough to have either generous state or final salary pensions are the gilded ones who can spend their years of rest (subject to good health) holidaying, eating out, appearing in Saga commercials, indulging their grandchildren and probably giving their own offspring a leg-up on to the property ladder by helping them find the deposit to buy their first home.  However there is another dimension to this sweetness and light: boomerang children who gravitate homeward to where the money is because of divorces/separations,  requirement for low or zero cost nanny facilities (Granny); perhaps either redundancy or being just plain hard up has driven them back to the family home.

But even the well-off  retired are diminishing; public sector pensions are getting cut back and nearly all  final salary private sector schemes have been closed to new entries as companies find they can no longer afford to fund these  generous programmes, the stock market is highly unpredictable and deposit interest rates are at an all time low point. For the next generation it would seem likely that there will be fewer merry widows as men live longer and widow’s pension’s get even smaller.

So now the prospect of work until you drop is fast becoming a reality, the alternative – an impecunious old age. The average private pension pot in the UK is worth £100,000. Invested, you will be lucky to receive an income of £5000 per annum  return. Add that to your state pension and your annual income will be well below the average minimum wage . So much for the golden years of idleness and excess!

I know this sounds terribly depressing but there is an upside of sorts, not quite a silver lining. As life expectancy increases so it is now becoming more acceptable to work longer – into your 7os if you want and clearly the Government will force you into this in time as state pension retirement age rises. If you have the good fortune to keep fit, enjoy human contact and to have an endlessly curious outlook on life the future can be intriguing and full of interest. The actual idea of NOT working appals me, in fact I find it a bit frightening, but I know not everyone will share this rosy viewpoint.

I admit, as a marketing and business consultant, I no longer have the stresses of managing staff; my responsibilities are to my clients and my own professional reputation. I have one brother who is a lawyer who is still in employ at age 71 and another who is 75 that runs a successful recruitment consultancy and last year undertook 60 business flights to Europe and the US. They both could afford to retire in style but wish to stay working so maybe it is just a bonkers streak in my family?

Having to engage one’s brain by keeping up to date on technology and business matters plus the stimulation of meeting people all helps to slow down the ageing process and maintain a level of self-worth. For most working people their work defines them as individuals and without it they begin to atrophy which is why so many soon fade away once work ends? Without a plan (that plan again!), an absorbing hobby, voluntary work or some other meaningful past-time, retirement robs many of the will to live.

The amount of mature students taking further education courses through the Open University and other institutions has shot up in the last few decades as oldies seek new knowledge and skill sets. Many embark upon this educational journey, not to further their careers, but for the sheer joy of learning. Such opportunities were perhaps not open to them when they were young but now they have the chance to catch up on the privileges that their own children have enjoyed.  So in summary I counsel all those who are thinking that life ends at 60 (or later), to banish this out of date notion. Keep the brain box engaged in gear, continue to do useful things and don’t forget that employers can no longer fire you just because you have reached  your official ‘retirement age’. 

Remember, having some grey hairs means that you have a lifetime of business and real life experience to draw upon. This wisdom can deliver massive dividends for clients and potential employers. And that is a very valuable commodity that should never be underestimated.

It’s called life!

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