Not the retiring type: choosing to work in old age

By Sharon Stephenson

Sharon Stephenson talks to a trio of keen workers who insist age shall not weary them.

Dame Margaret Sparrow's Wellington home is filled with stuff. Bookcase after over-flowing bookcase. Yellowing maps. A hand-stitched quilt, draped across a leather sofa almost as old as its owner. Outside, there's a cracked concrete path and a garden pretty much left to its own devices.

But Sparrow, a pioneer of women's sexual health in New Zealand, is too busy to tame the hillside section she's owned since 1969. The 82-year-old may have hung up her stethoscope a decade ago, but she still works at a pace that would surprise many younger workers.

There is, for example, Ishtar, the not-for-profit company she and a group of fellow doctors started in 1999 to import the controversial abortion pill RU-486 when no other pharmaceutical company would touch it.

Sparrow is still an active director of the company named after the goddess of love, fertility and war, although the days of manually packing pills to send to hospital pharmacies are over. "We recently employed a distribution company to handle that side of things, as it wasn't a good use of our time," she says.

The rest of her week is taken up with writing books, mainly about New Zealand's turbulent abortion history. The first was published in 2010, the second in 2014 and a third has recently gone to the printers. Voluntary work for the Intersex Trust Aotearoa NZ, which she's done for 20 years, helps to fill in the gaps.

Surely the former president of the Abortion Law Reform Association has earned the right to put up her feet?

"Why would I? I'm fortunate that I'm in a position where I don't have to work for the money but because I enjoy it," says Sparrow, who usually lives alone but is currently sharing her house with two of her three 20-something granddaughters.

"I've still got the energy to keep working and the work I do isn't terribly physical, so while I'm able to manage it, I'll keep going."

Sparrow has always worked - from the Taranaki dairy farm where she was born to the three medical jobs she juggled for many years: at Victoria University's Student Health Service, a sexual health clinic and Wellington's Family Planning Clinic (which now bears her name).

She also raised two children alone after her marriage to Peter, another doctor, ended in 1964.

"No one else I knew back then was a single mother or had a failed marriage, but I just got on with it."

She had to grow an extra layer of skin after her work as one of New Zealand's first abortion doctors earned her abuse - from having white crosses planted on her lawn to her neighbours being warned about the "murderer" next door.

"It has been a struggle at times but I've enjoyed standing up for what I believe in and seeing change happen."

Sparrow, who was made an MBE in 1987 and a Dame in 2002, says there was never any pressure on her to retire when she turned 65.

"In fact, it was quite the reverse. They said to me 'How are we going to replace you?' There was never a sense of 'you need to move on, you're taking a younger doctor's place'. I'm sure I could have stayed longer but I wanted to focus on other things."

Sparrow recently attended a reunion with the 20 or so of her Otago Medical School classmates still around. "Sadly, some of my fellow students are no longer able to work because of heart problems, Parkinson's, deafness or blindness. I'm fortunate that I've still got my health and, as long as that continues and I can keep making a difference, I'll keep working. There are still things I want to achieve ... "

Sparrow isn't alone. Census figures show that 40 per cent of 65 to 69-year-olds and 21 per cent of of 70 to 74-year-olds remained in full or part-time employment in 2013. This is a major increase on the previous 2006 Census figures but, even before the jump, New Zealanders had one of the highest employment rates of 65-plus-year-olds in the OECD, beaten only by Iceland, South Korea and Japan.

Almost two decades after the compulsory retirement age was banned by the Human Rights Act, Dr Susan St John, the Director of Auckland University's Retirement Policy and Research Centre, says today's 65+ demographic can be divided into three groups.

"The first group is likely to keep working if they can through necessity, because NZ Superannuation is not enough for most people to live on, especially in the big cities," says Dr St John.

"The middle group keeps working for a range of reasons, including feeling they still have more to contribute and because they enjoy work, while the third group comprises those who keep working in full-time, well-paid work. These people tend to be the highly skilled, non-manual, professional class. They may have better health than their peers and enjoy what they do, plus they've very much bought into society's strong work ethic, which encourages people to derive their sense of worth from paid employment. For this group, the idea of getting their gold watch and playing golf all day is neither attractive nor realistic."

What's more, as we grapple with the hike in the retirement age to 67, it's worth considering research from the United States that shows once people retire, almost 85 per cent say they'd like to return to work.

"While still employed, people tend not to appreciate the benefits of working until that work is no longer there and they have a vast amount of life and leisure," says Ursula Staudinger, a psychologist and ageing researcher from Columbia University.

"But if all your whole life is a vacation, then that vacation can lose its value."

"Working keeps me young and offers me a reason to get out of bed in the morning," says real estate director Garth Barfoot. Photo / Jason Oxenham
"Working keeps me young and offers me a reason to get out of bed in the morning," says real estate director Garth Barfoot. Photo / Jason Oxenham

I'm interviewing Garth Barfoot by Skype when it cuts out. The 80-year-old fiddles with his iPad and within seconds has it sorted.

"See, I couldn't do that if I'd retired at 65," jokes Barfoot. "I wouldn't know how to work technology if I was sitting at home watching TV all day."

Barfoot, one of three directors of the Auckland real estate company Barfoot & Thompson, has worked at the firm his father Val set up since he was 21. He turns 81 next month, and says he gets a rash whenever the "R" word comes up.

"Why would I want to retire when I can come into a nice office with nice people and still contribute? Of course I don't need the money but working keeps me young and offers me a reason to get out of bed in the morning."

Four days a week, Barfoot drives into his Shortland Street office from the Beach Haven home he and his wife Judy built in 1972 (Judy retired from her job as an anaesthetist at Auckland Hospital when she turned 60). He tries to be at his desk by 8.30am and leaves at 5pm.

The father of three and grandfather of four estimates he's done "almost every job" at the firm, which had 88 staff when he started in 1967 (that number now hovers around the 2407 mark).

"I started off doing the banking and making the tea, then progressed to sales and marketing, becoming a director in 1968. For the last 30 or so years I've mainly been involved in interviewing every new residential and rural salesperson in the greater Auckland area."

The youngest of four sons, Barfoot originally headed for a career in farming because his parents didn't think there was much of a future in real estate. But when he got to Auckland Grammar, the academically bright student was told "only dumb kids do farming".

During his first year of a BCA at the University of Auckland, Barfoot overheard his former Grammar teachers discussing how long it was until they could draw their superannuation.

"It stuck in my head - how these guys were so desperate to retire that they were counting down to it. I've never wanted to live like that. I know of people in retirement villages whose highlight is seeing what's on TV that night. That certainly isn't me."

In 2001, Barfoot went down to four days a week, not because he wanted to work less but because he needed a day to train for the triathlons he's been doing since he turned 56.

"My son Henry started doing triathlons at school and he got my wife involved, so I went along to see what it was about and ended up getting into it too. I've done about 500 triathlons since then and I'm top of my age group now. Triathlons are a little like real estate - hard to give up when you're on top."

Barfoot, who is the longest-serving member of the family-run company, says there was never any expectation he would retire at 65. "I suppose that's the advantage of being your own boss - there's no one telling you to get out. But I've never really thought about being older than everyone else in the company - plus, experience is definitely an advantage when you're interviewing staff."

He's been called "an old guy" by a candidate who didn't get the job but the perennially cheerful Barfoot doesn't let that bother him. "I can't do anything about my age so there's no point in getting grumpy about it."

One thing that does irk him is the current debate about New Zealand's retirement age.

"Putting the age up to 67 is a load of nonsense! In my opinion, it should be 75. If you don't do physical work but sit behind a computer like me, and your body is capable of carrying on, then you should keep working. Not just because of the money but also for your physical and emotional well-being. You've got a lifetime of experience and it seems a shame not to do anything with it."

So does Barfoot ever see himself clocking off?

"I don't want to go to my grave wondering if I should have retired earlier. But as to when I'll finally call it quits, I prefer the Winston Peters answer to that - it's for me to know and for you to find out ... "

Suggest to Jim Masson that he might enjoy a sleep-in and the 79-year-old will look at you as though you've suffered a bash to the head.

"I've been getting up at 6am for longer than I can remember," says the father of three and grandfather of six. "Just because I now work part-time doesn't mean that has to change."

Jim Masson says working two days a week means he can continue to share his knowledge. Photo / Nick Reed
Jim Masson says working two days a week means he can continue to share his knowledge. Photo / Nick Reed

Masson has been working two days a week as a retail assistant at Devonport's Hammer Hardware for the last three years. Every Wednesday and Thursday, he makes the five-minute drive to the Clarence Rd store, where he spends eight and a half hours on his feet helping customers with everything from blocked drains to paint-tinting.

"A young person isn't necessarily going to have the experience to give advice or problem-solve. If a customer comes in and says, 'Something's wrong with my shower or my shed, how do I fix it?' then I'm generally able to help because I've got years of experience."

Aside from two years off to nurse his late wife Margaret through cancer, Masson has been in paid employment since he was 15. He believes it "goes against the grain" to give up work.

"I like helping people and I enjoy the company, especially now that I live alone. Work also keeps me in touch with what's going on in the local community. And because I don't play golf or bowls, working, even if it only is two days a week, gives me something to do other than watch TV all day."

The extra income isn't really a factor for the frugal Masson, who argues that it is possible to get by on NZ Superannuation. "You have to cut your cloth to suit when you don't work full-time. People say, 'It's all right for you, you own your own home.' But rates and insurance keep going up, while the pension doesn't."

Although his fortnightly pay packet does come in handy when paying for the twice-yearly flights to Noosa, where his son owns a holiday home. "All I have to pay for is the flights and I live as cheaply there as I do at home."

Masson was born in Sandringham, the youngest of eight children. His father, the station master at Newmarket Railway Station, gave him two options: either work for a bank or an insurance company. He chose the former and spent 16 years with the BNZ. "I started licking stamps as the office junior and left as the head teller of the Otahuhu Branch."

He went on to manage service stations, drive trucks and work for a rental car company at Auckland Airport before landing in the hardware industry, where he cut his hours to four days a week when he turned 65.

Recent ill-health means Masson, who ran his first marathon at 52, has had to further ease off the gas. "It's disappointing, but I may have to go down to one day a week soon. I've also had to change the way I work, because I'm no longer able to lift heavy objects. But all my colleagues have been good about it. They'll say, 'You shouldn't be carrying that,' and I'll reply, 'Do you think I'm old or something?' But while there's been no pressure to retire, at some stage I might have to look at walking away because of my health."

- Canvas

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