People embarking on marriage and parenthood and other life events can go to courses to help them through the transition, but where can they go for learning on the transition to later life – the life stage formerly known as “retirement?
The concept of “retirement” is changing. For many people the process is no longer a “cliff edge” transition from full-time work to full-time leisure. It is becoming much more of a transitional stage, which may involve gradual movement out of the workforce, during which lives consist of different mixes of paid and unpaid work, voluntary and caring work, and leisure. People are making the shift from the workforce into full retirement over what may be more than a decade and the experience is likely to be different for everyone. The common factor is that people are moving into later life and this entails a whole range of changes, well beyond the sphere of paid work.
As is the case for many life transitions, planning can ease the process, helping people to prepare for change. Education (in its broadest sense) can provide the information necessary to plan, to cope with all aspects of transition and to achieve successful evolution into the next stage.
So what “pre-retirement” education is available now? An investigation, undertaken by Age Concern Wellington a few years ago, showed that such courses were almost totally focussed on financial preparation, except for a very few courses run by employers, and one-to-one life coaching. I believe there is an opportunity for adult educators to fill this gap and thus for people, and the baby boom generation in particular, to be better informed about a crucial stage of life, about which there are so many fears and misconceptions.
Why is this important? Well, the period between leaving the workforce and death used to be about 5 years on average, now it is more like 20 years. Life expectancy at age 65 is 18 years for men (average age at death 83) and for women 20.6 years (average age at death 86.6).
Financial security in later life is indeed crucial, but pre-retirement education, which can contribute meaningfully to adjustment to later life and positive ageing, must have a wider brief. Other essential topics include health and fitness, housing and lifestyle, relationships and family, options for paid and unpaid work (including flexible working options), legal issues and personal security.
Research which I carried out recently showed that few New Zealand employers offer any type of pre-retirement education. Where they do, this is likely to be those with larger staff numbers in the “white collar” sectors. Their motives tend to be centred around being a good employer – “doing the right thing” by their workers. Employers’ reasons for not offering pre-retirement education are that they are too small, that they could not afford it, they do not see any advantage to themselves as employers, or that it is not their responsibility, but that of the government or the individual.
The courses are often seen as part of policies for staff welfare in general, like stress and crisis management and health checks. They are rarely seen as contributing to growth or productivity. Given an ageing workforce, and the prospects of skill and labour shortages in the future, some employers are beginning to recognise the need to retain valued older workers rather than encouraging them to retire. Pre-retirement education can be a tool for staff retention, to explore options to continue working, with flexible conditions, and to contribute to succession planning.
Employers who do wish to provide pre-retirement education, either in the form of traditional seminars or individual life coaching, have a range of commercial providers to choose from. Some concentrate on financial matters, but others range more widely, bringing in practical considerations such as housing and health, and also less tangible aspects such as values and goal setting. Their offerings may focus mainly on providing information or may be more interactive, allowing participants to work through their own retirement plans.
Workforce-based pre-retirement education may be sparse, but there is even less available to the public in general, through the usual adult education sources. If people wish to prepare themselves for later life in New Zealand, they are dependent on what they can find in libraries, bookshops and on the internet. Sorted.co.nz is a great resource, but, as I said, the need is wider than financial preparation.
Where pre-retirement courses have been evaluated by the participants, immediate levels of satisfaction have usually been good. But little is known about their long-term outcomes. Do existing courses lead to a better adjustment to retirement, more successful ageing and better quality of life in old age? At present we do not know. But the potential benefits of pre-retirement education/preparation for later life are extensive, including:
- Understanding of the processes of normal ageing, the myths and the realities.
- Better adaptation to change in personal life as we age – facing both positive and negative life changes, learning about personal relationships and how to make them better, exploring our roles as parents, grand-parents and partners and how these may be changing.
- Helping older people to care for themselves and preventing illness, promoting self-help, building coping skills and self-esteem.
- How to make the best use of spare time to promote wellbeing, to develop networks and contacts with others; using skills to promote personal satisfaction and find increased meaning in life.
- In community and civic life, how to become effective and participative members of the community, including being involved in planning and governance, based on lifetime experiences and wisdom.
Who will rise to the challenge and help fill the gap?
Dr Judith A. Davey
Age Concern New Zealand voluntary policy advisor
Senior Research Associate, Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington