Why Work Matters, Especially as We Age

“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,
“And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head –
Do you think, at your age, it is right?”

“In my youth,” Father William replied to his son,
“I feared it might injure the brain;
But, now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
Why I do it again and again.”

Lewis Carroll

My dad’s best friend was someone we considered part of our extended family for as long as I can remember. As children we went on a number of happy shared holidays with his family, the bonus being we got to play on the beach with his kids who were of a similar age.

But there came a time when my brothers and I realised something was troubling Dad deeply. It wasn’t being spoken about openly, that just wasn’t done at that time, but we gradually worked out it was something to do with his friend.

The something turned out to be the “easing out” or redundancy package that his friend had been given, at a time when he was at the peak of his career, in a very senior executive position in a large company that he had worked for, for a long time.

While the package was clearly generous, it didn’t detract from the fact that my Dad’s best friend no longer had a job.

As the years rolled by, nothing dimmed their friendship, but my Dad’s best friend never worked again.

The enormity of what this must have meant to him and his family never really sank in until I too joined the workforce as an adult.

I often wondered how he had coped, how he had felt about being tossed out as surplus to requirements, knowing he had done nothing wrong and had simply in the wrong place at the wrong time when the decision to axe a number of positions was made

That was one man’s experience thirty years ago.

Today there is a quiet epidemic of highly qualified men and women suffering the same fate – being pushed into forced early retirement in their fifties, with the sad reality that they are now viewed as too old, and over-qualified for other positions. They often have little prospect of re-entering the workforce unless they perhaps have a contact who can help out, typically a colleague of a similar vintage.

What a waste of wisdom and remaining potential.

While the prospect of an early exit from a job that is disliked can be very welcome, the consequences of forced early retirement are worrying from several perspectives.

  1. Work is often seen as a source of purpose and meaning. We strive to do work that we find rewarding, that we are good at and enjoy. Having that taken away sometimes without warning can leave a void, a deep empty chasm of “now what?” Sure, there is plenty of scope for voluntary and charity work if desired but knowing that your desire to work now counts for little, hurts. The risk being that unless appropriate supports are in place there is an increased risk of the person developing a mood disorder such as anxiety and depression.
  2. With a rapidly ageing population that is living longer, being forced out of work in your fifties means there is a very real prospect you may live for a longer time as an older unemployed person than you spent in the workforce. Retirement was only ever introduced to fill in the short time frame between stopping work and falling off the perch, a couple of years at most. With the average life expectancy now in our mid-eighties will playing bridge, travelling the world (if you have the money) or kayaking every day for the next thirty to forty years be enough to feed the soul, and provide enough self-worth?
  3. Work is important for our cognitive well-being. The one thing that frightens us the most about ageing beyond dying itself, is the thought of losing our memory and cognitive function. However, stopping work is associated with a loss of routine and a reduction of cognitive stimulation. The 2010 Mental Retirement study examined the impact of retirement on cognitive function in older people in the US, UK and 11 European countries and found that early retirement in a person’s early sixties had a significant negative impact on their cognitive function. This is especially true for those employed in professions where their work requires a high degree of thinking, problem-solving, decision making, creating insight etc.
    Fortunately, if you are lucky enough to find your work stimulating, the impact of the cognitive ageing process is reduced. This is where a high level of intrinsic motivation helps to reduce any associated drop in productivity normally associated with increasing age. This is why continuing to stretch our mental muscle at every age is paramount to continuing good brain health and function.
    This along with financial reasons is why many now to choose to remain in the workplace if possible – especially if you feel you still have something useful to contribute. This is backed up by American Statistics from 2017 that reported 32% of people aged 65-69 were still at work along with 19% of those aged 70-74 and these numbers are expected to increase.
  4. One study found that delaying retirement by one year (beyond the expected cut off at 65) reduces a person’s risk of dying by 9-11%. If we ever needed a good reason to stay at work that has to be a good one. Work keeps us healthy and is neuroprotective, helping to reduce our relative risk of developing dementia.
  5. Last but not least work is important from the social perspective. Workplace friendships and camaraderie contribute to our overall sense of happiness and well-being.

As the competition for jobs heats up across all ages is there a solution to what’s happening?

Not a perfect one.

But in a world where organisational restructure, mergers, automation and AI is leading the change of who does what work and when, it’s important to consider the economic, social and community impact of forced early retirement.

While it’s vital that younger generations are given the opportunity to contribute to work it makes sense too, to tap into the vast wealth of human experience and deeper understanding of the different nuances of work that can only come from time in the arena.

This is why the need is for greater flexibility and broader options to reduce the current approach which very much feels like we’re chucking the baby out with the bathwater. What this looks like is yet to be clearly defined but could include more part-time or mentoring positions, so that highly valuable knowledge is passed on rather than being lost forever.


Dr. Jenny Brockis

Dr. Jenny Brockis is passionate about all things “brain”. She helps businesses and individuals develop and benefit from a brain-friendly work culture. As a Medical Practitioner and author of 3 books, Jenny can show you how to improve your mental flexibility and agility necessary to thrive in our increasingly complex world.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This