Your Money and careers writer for the NZ Herald

The new retirement: work until you drop

Few Kiwis give up work the day they turn 65. Photo / 123RF
Few Kiwis give up work the day they turn 65. Photo / 123RF

The retirement ideal has undergone more facelifts than an ageing baby boomer. Not so long ago, you might work to 65 and collect a gold watch then enjoy grandkids, a bit of travel and a healthy superannuation.

But that model has been decaying for years, driven by the new realities of a longer life expectancy, a desire not to be forced out of the workforce when still healthy and the need to pay for an enjoyable 20 or 30 years after the age of retirement.

Whether it's looming on the horizon or seems a 100 years away, how to live out a comfortable existence when you complete your final 9-5 is increasingly uncertain.
Will you work until you drop? Many Kiwis are finding themselves in exactly that position.

Tony Smith is about to turn 64 and says there is no way he and his wife, Dawn Symes, 63, can afford to retire on NZ Super alone.

Both work as part-time caregivers earning between $15.25 and $17.24 an hour. Ideally, says Smith, he would prefer to spend his post-65 days with his children and grandchildren, fishing, and gardening.

Instead the E Tu union delegate arrives home from a physically demanding day with no energy to do the things he loves after work.

"The only thing I want to do when I get home is go to bed."

Dawn struggles, too. She has arthritis in her knees, spine and elbows and sometimes struggles to get out of bed to go to her caregiving jobs.

Smith realises some people will ask why the couple didn't save more during their working lives.

The reality is that life got in the way - he suffered three heart attacks between the ages of 38 and 62, which played havoc with his ability to save.

The first meant he lost his taxi business and had to revert to working for wages.
The latest meant months of enforced time off from work as a bus driver, which ate up his retirement savings and left him with outstanding bills.

"It's very hard to live on [the couple's allowance of] $1125 NZ Super per fortnight," he says.

At the other end of the scale, Smith's daughter Ronwyn is watching her dad work himself into the ground.

She also watched her grandfather Leon work beyond the age of retirement. He worked almost up until his death from prostate cancer five years ago.

Ronwyn, a rest home caregiver, is sad and frustrated people like her father can't kick back and enjoy their retirement.

She pays into KiwiSaver, but worries that won't be enough when she retires. She puts 4 per cent of her income into the savings fund, which is more than the minimum, and her contributions are boosted with 3 per cent from her employer.

But she can't afford income protection insurance against ill health.

"I get quite frustrated and angry with my dad's situation. The fact he had to go back to work when he shouldn't have to."

A UK financial watchdog has forecast the pension age will have to rise to 69 by the late 2040s before increasing again to 70 by the early 2060s. Photo / 123RF
A UK financial watchdog has forecast the pension age will have to rise to 69 by the late 2040s before increasing again to 70 by the early 2060s. Photo / 123RF

UK pension provider Royal London published research last year suggesting today's workers will need to retire as late as 81 to enjoy the same standard of living enjoyed by their parents.

The findings fuel the belief many people will have to work until they drop to sustain their lifestyles.

The UK is reviewing its pensions regime and results are due to be published in May.

Those under about 55 could be affected by the shake-up, which will look at what the state retirement age should be from April 2028.

The current state pension age is 65 for men and 60-65 for women, and is due to rise for both to 66 by 2020. It is due to increase to 67 between 2026 and 2028, and will be linked to life expectancy thereafter.

A UK financial watchdog has forecast the pension age will have to rise to 69 by the late 2040s before increasing again to 70 by the early 2060s.

Former Prime Minister John Key resisted pressure to raise the retirement age, memorably vowing he would quit rather than do it.

But Bill English has refused to renew that pledge, which he described as "a product of its time, where there was a need to establish trust".

In December the Commission for Financial Capability called for NZ Super eligibility to be increased gradually between 2027 and 2034 to the age of 67.

But even with minor increases over time, if politicians get over that hurdle, there are still a number of years ahead when you won't want to be counting the pennies.

Average life expectancy has increased by more than 20 years over the past century. In Western countries, it is growing by five hours a day.

The share of the global population aged over 65 in rich countries will rise from 15 per cent in 2010 to 27 per cent by 2050, according to The Economist.

Those over 80 will increase from 4 per cent to 9 per cent. In New Zealand, some 1.5 million New Zealanders will be over 65 by 2061.

The trend is well known, but countries are only just starting to grapple with the implications.

A study by the Commission for Financial Capability found just one quarter of workers planned to retire by or at age 65. Photo / 123RF
A study by the Commission for Financial Capability found just one quarter of workers planned to retire by or at age 65. Photo / 123RF

Few Kiwis give up work the day they turn 65. Instead they tail off between 60 and 70 with a downward kink in the trend line at 65, thanks to NZ Super eligibility.

Statistics New Zealand's numbers for what it calls the "silver wave of older workers" show 22.2 per cent (600,000) of people over 65 are employed today - compared to 9 per cent 30 years ago.

A study by the Commission for Financial Capability found just one quarter of workers planned to retire by or at age 65.

One in five expected to work beyond 72 and one in 10 thought they would still be working at 76.

More than half of those in the Ageing Workforce study, released in December last year, said they needed to work for financial reasons.

It's not all bad, of course. Some in the study said they were fit and healthy, loved working and didn't want to stop.

But having the choice at that age is the key.

The growing number of Kiwis working until they drop inspired a BNZ advertising campaign.

The video featured ordinary Kiwis singing a ditty about how they were going to work until they die.

Lines in the advertisement included: "I'm going to clean until I can clean no more," and "I'm going to work in middle management until I can no longer see, taking orders from someone who is 23."

The advertisement ended with the words: "If you don't have KiwiSaver are you happy with your alternatives?"

You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone in the finance sector who wouldn't recommend KiwiSaver for anyone under 65.

Insurance is another antidote to working until you drop. More working-age Kiwis are disabled by illness than accident and trying to live on Work and Income benefits can devastate retirement savings.

Research last year suggesting today's workers will need to retire as late as 81 to enjoy the same standard of living enjoyed by their parents.

Richard Klipin, chief executive of the Financial Services Council, says you never know when the next curve ball will come.

"That's why having a good plan B, an insurance plan, makes sense, because it gives you and your family choices when illness and tragedy strike," he says.

Income protection, mortgage protection and life and trauma insurance can mitigate the financial risks of illness.

Many of those who "can't afford to retire" are still paying mortgages. Statistics New Zealand says 9 percent of people 65 or older still have a mortgage to pay.

This may grow as Kiwis' attitudes to mortgages are changing with paid-off capital being viewed as "spare equity" they can dip into in their 40s and 50s to buy new kitchens and bathrooms.

Money spent on high-interest debt in their working lives is a big issue, says David Boyle general manager investor education at the Commission for Financial Capability.

Financial emergencies are bound to happen, he warns, and a small emergency fund means Kiwis can solve them without being stung with eye-watering interest payments.

For many of today's workforce, seeing their parents struggle is the first warning sign they need to consider their own circumstances.

And it is likely to become more of an issue with the growth of the gig economy, featuring part time, casual and contract work, whose insecure work patterns make it harder to save for retirement.

For career counsellor Jennie Miller, her dad's death was a turning point.

Brian Miller never made the trip to Greece he'd dreamed of. On the job at the age of 75, Brian - who appeared fit and healthy until that day and was still rowing - fell ill and was diagnosed with a massive and aggressive brain tumour, and died some months later.

"He worked until he died, basically, always worrying about what would happen if he didn't," says Jennie.

Brian never said no to contracts, fearing if he turned one down, no more work would come his way.

"It was a chicken and egg situation," says Miller.

"It's not easy to have money and time when you don't have a lot of savings beyond your home."

- Herald on Sunday

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