About the Author :
Shoba Narayan is the author of five books. As a journalist and columnist, she writes about health, relationships, travel, food and culture for global publications, winning a James Beard award and Pulitzer Fellowship. She has taught and lectured at universities in India (IIM-B and IISc) and abroad. She is the host and anchor of Bird Podcast: about birds and nature. She enjoys wine, studies Jung and is a gadget geek. Her lifelong mission is to get fit without exercising and lose weight without dieting.
How to age well is a topic that obsesses me. I am a writer and journalist. For years now, I have been writing about retirement and aging. How to game it? How to make it better? How to age with grace? How to preserve health? How to stay relevant? These are the things I will be writing about here.
Recently, I came across a study that confirmed what I already intuitively guessed: that people decline physically and mentally after they stop working. I saw it in my father after he retired. He was rudderless and lost. Which brings up the question: when should you retire?
Well, that depends on who you ask. Some people, caught in thankless high-stress middle-manager jobs cannot wait to retire. They dream of a life when they play golf, socialise with friends in the evening at clubs, and enjoy the company of children and possibly grandchildren. The fact that reality may not measure up to their dream is besides the point. They are done with deadlines, clients, and endless meetings. They want to be free.
Others, who enjoy the power and perks of a job they love cannot think of retiring. Their spouses call them “workaholics.” Their job defines their life, gives it meaning and purpose. They know (in the back of their heads) that there will come a day when they have quit. But they dread that day.
Today, most countries have set their retirement age at 65. In India, depending on whether you work in private or public sector, and in which state you live in, the retirement age is between 58-62. But I would like to argue that this is an arbitrary age made during a time when lives were different.
The concept of retirement began with war. The idea dates back to the Roman emperor Augustus who came up with a “pension” for hurt-retired Roman soldiers to ensure that they didn’t rise up against the Roman Empire. The idea caught on. In 1881, German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck said that anyone over 70 years of age ought to retire. Germany later brought down the age to 65. The United States followed with “social security benefits” from age 65 onwards. Today, most countries “force” their workers to retire at 65.
Part of the reason for setting a retirement age was so that people could enjoy their “golden years.” In 1900, globally, life expectancy was just 31 years. By 2018, that rose to 72 years. Today, some folks live well beyond 80 which means that you still have 20 years after you retire. So what do you do?
Keep working is what experts say. Gerontologists agree that we can maintain our cognitive facilities pretty much through our 70s. Sure, there are certain parts of the brain such as the prefrontal cortex associated with working memory and attention that start to lose volume and girth but that begins at age 45 and is linked to how much we use these skills. Neuroplasticity suggests that we either “use it or lose it.” But there are other areas where those of us in our fifties and sixties do better. Social cognition or the ability to behave appropriately in interpersonal interactions improves with age. Our crystallized intelligence, which is accumulated knowledge that can be applied to new situations also improves with age. This is called wisdom and even-temperedness.
Staying in the work force helps keep your brain supple and functioning. Studies link retirement to a decline in physical and mental abilities. One study says, “Retiring at a later age may lessen or postpone poor health outcomes for older adults, raise well-being, and reduce the utilization of health care services, particularly acute care.”
For most of us, this means that we should find gainful employment that is both interesting and flexible. If you are a finance whiz, you could work part-time for a startup where you will be surrounded by young people. If you have a skill in metallurgy or technical writing, you can move it to another business that is quite different from the one that you retired from. This freshness of job will add freshness to your life.
Today, numerous studies indicate that we each have a “working life expectancy” that is based on a number of factors. Most of us can expect to work for at least 17 years beyond retirement. That is a long time to sit at home.
So think about retirement of course. Figure out how you want to spend your time for the next 15 years. Make choices. Decide priorities. And then, go forth and make it happen. After all, you’ve had years of practice.
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