Saturday, 6 August 2016

Not to be seen again for generations

Anyone still working their socks off in an office might wistfully study the above picture. They may never get the chance to attend something like this. They may never find themselves sitting around like that, ready to hear a relaxed morning of anecdote and practical advice, all about the pitfalls and problems of retirement - taken early or at the normal time - followed by an afternoon devoted to finance.

It was a Retirement Course. The one I attended in May 2005, when still only aged fifty-two. A two-man team from a firm of pension and investment consultants had been hired by my Department to present a talk to people who were taking retirement. In my own case, an early retirement method called 'Approved Early Severance'.

AES was a particular kind of one-off deal for those over fifty but under sixty. You couldn't ask for it. It was offered out of the blue now and then, when government policy dictated that staff had to be got rid of. Only a limited number would get approval, with a strict pecking order if the deal were over-subscribed. So you'd need to be lucky.

AES wasn't a generous, gold-plated way to get early retirement. You might be entitled to only a meagre pension. You'd be interested if the figures worked out well enough, but not otherwise. I had been in the Department for nearly 35 years, and so the figures did work out. I would not be rich, but I'd be comfortable.

Even so, I'd have to say goodbye to a third of the pension I would have got, if I'd hung on for another eight years until sixty, which was my personal 'normal' retirement age. But it seemed worth the sacrifice. Eight extra years of freedom and leisure, when still young enough and healthy enough to really appreciate it - of course it was worth it.  

But unlike most in that room, I wouldn't get a lump sum. I had already, some years before, jumped into a new Departmental pension scheme which gave me extra pension, but no lump sum. In making that choice, I was taking a long-term view. Any lump sum would soon be gone - mainly on repaying the mortgage - but extra pension would be there forever - month after month after month until I died. I wanted that. So I had nothing to invest, and the 'investment afternoon' wouldn't be directly useful to me. But the morning was.

It was only two weeks before my last-ever day at the office. I was still working hard on my cases, but the last interviews were fixed up, the last settlement proposals had been made, and nothing fresh was going to land on my desk. I'd more-or-less wound up my affairs. I was carefree and relaxed, pretty well in a holiday mood. Attending a Retirement Course was a nice way to spend one of my last days. It meant a trip into central London too. I was conscious that I might not see central London much, the City anyway, once I'd gone. I made a point of recording the commuter scenes on arrival at London Bridge station, and as I walked across London Bridge into the City:

The classic race to the office. Brisk walking, bowed heads, hazy sunshine. The sights of London, such as Tower Bridge in the background, completely taken for granted. But I didn't take them for granted. I saw them with a tourist's eye. A tourist who might not return very often, and certainly never again this early in the day. I didn't love London, so there was no pang, but I did feel a curious sensation of an era passing, and of saying farewell. The phrase 'goodbye to all that' went through my mind. (It was the title of Robert Graves' autobiography)

I was looking forward to the day, but I didn't expect to learn anything I hadn't already thought of. I had been imagining life in retirement for a long time past. I thought I knew well enough what it would be like, and how I would fill my time. In that I was only partially correct. I hadn't thought of everything, not by any means.

Nevertheless, I settled down to enjoy the morning's talk. And it was a treat. The chap who spoke to us was a really friendly person, someone you could warm to like a favourite uncle. He was brimful of anecdotes about former colleagues who had taken retirement and how they had got on - and what lessons could be drawn. I started to pay close attention. There was more in this than met the eye! In story after story he revealed how life in retirement might be hard work. Or at least, a life for which one needed to have some definite coping strategies. And these had to be in place before the final day at the office.

Yes, there was that wonderful initial euphoria. And why not wallow in it? Thoroughly! But then, after the first few days at home, it was vital to get into fresh new habits that would get one out of bed early, and ensure that laziness and indolence and a general sluggishness of mind didn't take hold.

It didn't matter too much what one did, so long as sitting around on the sofa all day wasn't part of it. One needed a couple of hobbies, active ones if possible, and a few projects to think about and get on with. It didn't matter what they were, so long as they stirred one into an alert and active state of mind, and kept one fit.

Too many people relied on home shopping, holidays and family responsibilities to keep them busy in the future. They could all certainly fill one's time, but they were not necessarily one's special personal choice. It was so important to have interesting, personally-important, and - if at all possible - challenging things to get on with. Such as learning a brand new skill, and then putting it to use. Making things, perhaps. Studying something, with some definite end in mind. Something anyway chosen by oneself, and not just done as a household chore or as a family commitment. Life should be more than mowing the grass, pushing around a supermarket trolley, or babysitting the grandchildren.

Getting right out of the house, and mixing with new people, were other vital things. The social network at the office had vanished. This had to be replaced. If not already a member of, say, a social or sporting club, then voluntary work might be the answer; and for that a free pair of hands was the only essential requirement.

Or why not a full-time job? And earn a little extra from it too? We heard from him about a chap, a former office manager, who had got idle and fat and very unfit just sitting around. The deterioration was very marked, and it made him very grumpy. He had no hobbies. He'd never developed any. Nor was he the sort to invent active things to do - he didn't possess the right imagination. And then someone steered him into becoming a postman. Within months he was a changed person. Fit again, cheerful, and enjoying the vigorous outdoor life in all weathers.

Hmm. I'd thought that my camera and caravanning would together do the trick for me. Clearly that might not be so. I stopped pooh-poohing the need for retirement advice, and got thinking about other things I might do to keep me well, and avoid stagnation.

The afternoon session with the other man was rather different. It was sharper, with a hard focus on where to best put that lump sum. That congenial morning had softened us up for the kill.

We'd finished with the amiable uncle. This was a salesman talking. In fact, I began to think we were all getting too much of the hard sell. Granted, he made all the various investment options clear, including putting cash in bonds and other value-preserving products. This was of course 2005, three years before the Recession, and still an era of high interest rates and big bonuses on any money put away. There were a staggering number of different investment vehicles to consider. But I thought - and clearly several other people thought the same - that he was making some big unwarranted assumptions about what we might be willing to do with our resources. Another woman from my office, who was taking early retirement with me, intended to buy a bigger house with her husband, and lump-sum bond purchases were no part of their retirement plans. Yet this man was passing around papers, asking everyone for full particulars of their present financial state, and for their contact details. Ominous! She said she might slip away at the next coffee break, and not stay to the end. She wasn't alone in whispering that.

Certainly the hard sell was all wrong. It was unexpected and we didn't want it. In any case, high-up tax inspectors might be expected to be pretty savvy where money matters were concerned, and to know what was on the market, and which financial products might suit them. I stayed to the end, but had a cast-iron let-out: I wasn't going to get a lump sum. I secretly relished saying so to the man, when he asked me why I hadn't filled in his questionnaire. He had taken it for granted that I'd become a client.

Then I went home. The hard-sell 'nasty man' - he wasn't really nasty, just doing his job - had tarnished the day's experience somewhat, but I was still giving a lot of thought to the stories and advice given by the 'nice man' during the morning. Nevertheless, I didn't neglect to photograph passing scenes on the Underground:

And did I become a postie? No. Or a charity volunteer? No. Did I become a fat couch potato? Again, no. I avoided all of these.

M--- and I had three fulfilling years before the rot set in. We went together to lots of places, and even travelled to New Zealand and back. But I'd had to sell my house, and I wasn't quite happy presuming on M---'s goodwill by sharing her home for a while. And I did feel the loss of my job, my colleagues, and all the former structure of my day. Eventually I seemed to be living hour by hour, without any definite plans. I had a pleasant, easy life, but it was purposeless. I could almost say meaningless. Even our joint investment in Ouse Cottage was in fact M---'s pet hands-on project, rather than mine, and she had all the fun and satisfaction to be had from it. I began to experience what the nice man on the Retirement Course had been warning against. This set the stage for deep introspection and its consequences.

And nowadays, eleven years on from retirement day? Well, I've put on weight, and could do with more exercise, but on the whole I'm looking good, I'm well occupied, and I feel very happy. I lead an interesting well-planned life, with objectives in view all the time, every day. I have ambitions, things to look forward to, and I do not drift.

So no regrets about retiring early. Indeed, my life might have turned out very differently if I'd stayed on at work till sixty. Eight more years of stress, in exchange for more pension. Eight more years of a tiresome job, and tiresome role-playing, just so that I might get an extra few thousand pounds to play with each year.

I did the right thing. Freedom is beyond price.

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