Working past retirement age: What, why and how

Working past retirement age: What, why and how

Meet three Canadians who offer a window into the new retirement reality.

(Illustration by Ping Zhu)

(Illustration by Ping Zhu)

Bill Van Gorder had been retired from his career job for three years when the market swoon of 2008–09 devastated his portfolio. The Halifax resident was already working part time, but added a second job as a local distributor of Nordic walking poles, a business he operates with his wife Esther. Now 71, VanGorder maintains the company’s website and uses LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and HootSuite for sending out educational and promotional messages. “I’ve had to become more efficient in social media than most people would think a 71-year-old would.”

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VanGorder also works one day a week as Atlantic business development manager for Hiring Smart, which provides online recruiting tools. He’s also chair of the Nova Scotia chapter of CARP, an organization for older or retired Canadians. He even volunteers with a theatre group. VanGorder now works more hours than he did in his career job and says he would keep working even if he didn’t need the income. “I wouldn’t want to stop the activities I’m involved with. I enjoy them too much. It’s the joy of seeing businesses grow and seeing the tangible results from the success. I don’t see myself sitting in a rocking chair and wondering what I’m going to do today.”

Welcome to the new world of work for older Canadians. An increasing number of workers in their 50s, 60s and early 70s are taking on less traditional jobs after their former careers. Typically, they’re out to fill a need for income by also doing fulfilling work. A recent Statistics Canada study found 60% of workers between 55 and 59 who had left their long-term career jobs between 1994 and 2000 were re-employed in some way within 10 years. For workers between 60 and 64, the percentage was 44%. “There are lots of opportunities out there,” says Tara Talbot, vice-president of human resources at the employment website Workopolis. “You have to figure out what’s going to fill your cup financially and emotionally.”

That’s not always easy. “All the people I know who don’t have a pension and are healthy are working past the normal retirement age, some more happily than others,” VanGorder says. To show you how it can be done, we’ll share the stories of three Canadians who have made similar transitions.

Coming of age

Post-career jobs are diverse, and older Canadians can see their situations change for various reasons. They may leave jobs voluntarily or get laid off. Sometimes they continue in career occupations, but with new work arrangements. These may include consulting, self-employment, contract or freelance work. Others try entirely new lines of work. More often than not, these jobs pay less but come with less stress and more flexibility. Often, older workers use them to gear down to fewer hours.

VanGorder says those who haven’t had success finding work later in life are typically those who keep trying to get the same job they had in their career—sometimes for the same pay—even after that proves unfruitful. “They’re stuck trying to do what they’ve always done and expect it to work.” While you may need to re-invent your work out of necessity, that can often be a positive move. “The big advantage we have as older workers is we can pick and choose and do things we like.”

One challenge you may encounter in a post-career job is perceptions about older workers. Many employers view older workers as attractive because they have experience, maturity, reliability, a proven ability to do a job with little or no training, and they’re often flexible about when and how much they work. On the flip side, their stamina, comfort with new technology and willingness to embrace change may be considered suspect.

Peter Cappelli, professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of Managing the Older Worker, says age bias is undeservedly embedded in our culture. His review of the research found older workers tend to perform particularly well because the most important determinant of job performance is experience, which older workers have in abundance. Cappelli says it’s all in the way you frame the question. “Would you want the oldest doctor in the hospital? People say of course not. But would you want the most experienced doctor in the hospital? They would say of course.”

The situation older workers might encounter is not necessarily prejudice or bias against age, “but against outdated workers,” says Peter Harris, editor-in-chief at Workopolis, citing comments from a career counsellor. “It’s important for older workers to keep up to date, not just with technology, but with news, culture, even their look. If your clothes and hair are outdated, you look dated.”

Widen your network

Joe Camilleri was laid off from his job as creative director at a mid-sized Toronto advertising agency during a downturn in the early 2000s. Other agencies weren’t hiring senior staff, so he started working as a freelance art director and creative director. He benefitted from a strong network of industry contacts and clients from his agency years; soon he was able to establish a steady stream of business. These days, at age 57, he works with other freelancers who form teams to complete assignments for clients who have small jobs and tight budgets but demand agency-quality work. He also pinch-hits for agencies that need help on critical work from experienced professionals they can count on to “nail it.”

Freelancing “has its pluses and minuses,” Camilleri says. He doesn’t make as much money as before and his income is uncertain; however, he now has a more flexible schedule and can work where he wants “without being chained to a desk.” His wife’s good regular job with benefits helps steady the family finances. He is still stimulated by advertising work and plans to continue for the foreseeable future. “I can’t see not doing anything. Not only that, I have two kids still to put through university.”

Camilleri says the proportion of ad industry work done by freelancers has been growing, and technology makes ad production easier for individuals or small teams. But there’s lots of competition, and you need to market yourself continuously. “The work isn’t coming to you,” he says. “You have to become proactive about connecting with people and moving forward. You have to be energetic and outgoing.”

Networking is crucial, he says. Older workers need to renew and maintain contacts with people they know or have worked with. It helps to be active in business groups, community organizations and charities. This provides direct benefits of connecting with people, and also keeps you sharp and engaged with colleagues.

To make the most of networking and marketing, you should embrace social media and make the most of online tools. Camilleri says you should be sure to complete a full LinkedIn profile to help you maintain and add connections. “It expands exponentially. You connect with a few people, then someone sees you’re connected with their friend and they want to connect with you too.” Freelancers in his industry use LinkedIn to network among themselves, and companies use it to look for talent. “Three times in the last six months I’ve been called out of the blue for potential creative director jobs by people I didn’t previously know,” Camilleri says. He also uses LinkedIn to display examples of his advertising work with links to his own website.

You’ll also need a new résumé. The old style was to provide chronological listings of jobs, titles and responsibilities. A more current approach highlights skill sets and accomplishments, then shows their relevance to a potential employer in a specific role, says Peter Harris of Workopolis. “It shows, ‘Here’s what I have done, therefore here is what I can do for you.’”

If you start a new line of work, your transition could be more difficult. It’s easy to be intimidated by lack of experience in a different industry. But your existing skills may be more transferrable than they first appear. VanGorder was CEO of the Lung Association of Nova Scotia until retiring in 2005, and found his advocacy and fundraising skills could be adapted to the business world. “I just had to learn to take those skills and tweak them for commercial marketing.”

Engineering a transition

Murray Etherington, 67, of Mississauga, is a professional engineer who was a manager in a small machinery manufacturer before being laid off four years ago. “They replaced me with a younger, less expensive person with similar skills but not the same experience,” he says. Etherington looked for another similar position, but found those jobs scarce. “I kept beating my head for six to eight months trying to find that job. Trying but not succeeding added to the frustration. Then I just decided, well, that’s that. Got to change. And then things just started to fall into place.”

He and a partner started a business doing safety inspections of warehouse storage systems, which brings in steady income for part-time work. With other partners he set up a company to design a hydraulic tool for mining and construction that they hope to manufacture. He also volunteers as chair of the Mississauga chapter of CARP and recently helped organize a job fair for older workers.

Etherington is happy to have given up the “stress of the daily grind.” His wife Marion, also in her 60s, was laid off at about the same time and has also returned to work part-time. The couple gets by on far less money now. “We’ve had to cut back on expenses and don’t get to travel as much as we used to. It’s a lower quality of life in that sense, but that’s OK because I really love what I’m doing.”

Etherington advises older workers not to rush the transition process, especially if they have been laid off. “It’s always a shock after it happens,” he says. “It takes a while to accept that. Initially you’re embarrassed to tell people, but it’s important you tell everyone. It may take four or five months to come to grips with it and start to make headway with positive moves.”

Bill VanGorder agrees and suggests taking a break, whether the end of a career job was unexpected or planned. It could be three months to a year, he says, or whatever you need to test what you want to do next. But just as important, you need to “refresh and re-energize.”

As VanGorder, Camilleri and Etherington have shown, the new world of work for Canadians in their 50s, 60s, and 70s is filled with challenges and opportunities. If you’re flexible and adapt to new realities, you’ll find work that is financially and emotionally rewarding. Says VanGorder: “I firmly believe it’s what you make it.”

David Aston, CFA, CMA, MA, is a freelance journalist writing about personal finance after holding traditional career jobs in corporate financial roles and management consulting.