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Seniors working longer, for better or for worse

Glen Morrow is 70 and happy to be single-handedly running his own auto shop in the Fleetwood neighbourhood of Surrey….

By Chris Lane , in Life , on March 25, 2013 Tags: , , ,

Glen Morrow doesn't plan on retiring, but he says it's not about money.
Glen Morrow doesn’t plan on retiring and says it’s never been about the money.

Glen Morrow is 70 and happy to be single-handedly running his own auto shop in the Fleetwood neighbourhood of Surrey. He has been working for 57 years but still has no plans to retire.

“I’ve got some place to play,” he says as he talks at length about the various projects he’s working on. “It’s all fun stuff to me.”

Not too many kilometres away, 72-year-old Chaudhry Mohammad Aslam Shad is also still working at an age when many other Canadians are retired. He’s not as happy about it. For him, it’s a matter of survival as his pension just doesn’t cut it.

Morrow and Shad represent two sides of a growing trend of British Columbians who are working well beyond the usual age of retirement.  Over the past 10 years, the proportion of British Columbians over the age of 70 who are still employed has nearly doubled, from 3.5 per cent 2002 to 6.4 per cent in 2012. That’s an increase from 13,000 to 30,000 people in B.C.’s workforce who are over 70.

Source: Statistics Canada and BC Stats
Source: Statistics Canada and BC Stats

The percentage is likely to continue increasing for decades, according to projections from B.C.’s Ministry of Labour.

Couple this with the region’s population of seniors, which is expected to double within 20 years, and we can expect to see a lot more seniors working around the province.

There’s a wide range of reasons to delay retirement, according to research by Grant Schellenberg, director of the social-analysis division of Statistics Canada, and his colleagues. Many older workers are, like Morrow, just happier working. For many others, their financial constraints leave them with no choice.

A Statistics Canada paper from 2005 reported that 38 per cent of seniors returning to the workforce did so for financial reasons, while 22 per cent didn’t like retirement and another 19 per cent came back because they liked their jobs. More recent data is limited, so it’s not clear how the recession might have impacted those numbers.

Making ends meet

For Shad, the recession had nothing to do with his efforts to keep working. The problem is that his pension just isn’t enough. He came to Canada from Pakistan in 1996 and was only working in Canada for a few years before he had to stop for health reasons. That meant he only had a few years’ worth of pension contributions, so he doesn’t get much more from government pensions than the basic old-age-security payments.

He now has a part-time job marketing registered educational savings plans, which he balances with volunteering at his mosque. He is still looking to advance his career. He currently works on commission, but is hoping to gain experience in computerized accounting in order to get a job with more financial security.

Shad’s income supports not only him, but also his wife, who has never worked in Canada, and his two children who are attending university. While the children both have part-time jobs to pay for school, Shad still helps them out as best he can.

Immigrants like Shad are particularly likely to continue working in their old age, according to Schellenberg’s research. Recent immigrants are 50 per cent more likely to be uncertain about retirement plans than Canadian-born people nearing retirement age. Those with poor health or who live alone are in the same boat, and tend to be more concerned that their retirement income won’t be enough. This concern often translates into putting off the decision to retire.

At 70, Glen Morrow likes to keep himself busy by working hard.
At 70, Glen Morrow likes to keep himself busy by working hard.

Anne Martin-Matthews, a University of B.C. professor and former director of the national Institute of Aging, says that fewer and fewer workers can expect to earn enough money after they retire.

Increasing numbers of people do not have any retirement plan from their employer, and the government pension isn’t always enough.

As well, Martin-Matthews says that parents can end up supporting children well beyond their college years. She cites the growing trend of “boomerang children” who live with their parents well into adulthood, which sometimes means that their parents cannot retire when they want to.

While some might think seniors are comfortably resting on their laurels after years of accumulating wealth, some recently released statistics paint a vastly different picture.

A typical senior in greater Vancouver who is not part of a family, as defined by the census, earns less than $25,000 a year, according to a report by the United Way in partnership with the Social Planning and Research Council of BC.

Just keeping busy

But not all working seniors need the income boost. Some just like their jobs. Or at least they don’t like the sound of retirement.

[pullquote]Holidays don’t mean anything to me.[/pullquote]Glen Morrow doesn’t want to stop playing around with trucks. He started tinkering with four-wheel drives in the early 1970s and turned his hobby into a business by opening up a repair shop.

Forty years later, he’s still working in the shop just about every day of the week.

“Holidays don’t mean anything to me,” he says, adding that he usually goes the entire day without sitting down or taking a break.

He doesn’t know what he would do if he retired. “If you don’t keep busy, you’re just going to fall apart.”

“I have more projects than life left,” says Morrow. But as long as he’s working hard, he feels like he’s still in his 40s.

Age is just a number

Martin-Matthews thinks that calling 65, or even 67 for that matter, the retirement age doesn’t make sense in this day and age. The threshold of 65 was established over a century ago, when most people didn’t even live to celebrate 65 years. Now that many people live into their 80s or beyond, she sees no reason why seniors should stop working as long as they’re still healthy and happy with their work.

For her part, Martin-Matthews has no desire to retire when she hits 65 and could see herself working for many years beyond that age. She might eventually do what many older adults do these days, which is a transition through a gradual retirement process that includes working part-time for a while.

She’s glad that B.C. no longer imposes mandatory retirement on older workers, as she can name multiple colleagues who were forced to retire when they turned 65 before the rules were changed five years ago. Those colleagues are now in their 70s and are still producing some of the best work in the field of gerontology, she says.

The question is how to deal with the new reality of a workforce that includes many people in their 70s.  Martin-Matthews strongly believes that seniors can be just as good as anyone else at their jobs, but grants that mandatory retirement makes sense for some more physical jobs. She suggests performance reviews as a way of ensuring that older workers are keeping up to par.

But for a lot of workers, age really is just a number.