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From choice or necessity, more people are working past 65

Harold Vandenberg has plenty of reasons for continuing to work at the age of 80, but the biggest might be this: Keeping busy is a good way of reminding yourself you are still very much alive. “I seen too many of my friends go under.

Harold Vandenberg has plenty of reasons for continuing to work at the age of 80, but the biggest might be this: Keeping busy is a good way of reminding yourself you are still very much alive.

“I seen too many of my friends go under. Under the ground,” says Vandenberg, a warehouse worker for Titan Construction in Langley.

“A lot of them guys didn’t have hobbies,” adds Vandenberg of those friends. 

Vandenberg is one of a growing number of Canadians working past the traditional retirement age of 65.

According to 2016 census figures, one in five Canadians is doing some kind of work, either full or part time, paid or unpaid, past 65. The number of post-retirement workers has doubled since 1995. 

In 2015, the year the latest census captures, 53.5 per cent of men who were 65 were still working, with 22.9 per cent of them working full time. In 1995, just 37.8 per cent of men were working and 15.5 per cent full-time. 

In 2015, almost 30 per cent of men were still working at age 70, almost double the 1995 figure. 

The census records an even faster rise since 1990 in the proportion of older women working (though women still lag men overall), with 38.8 per cent of women aged 65 reporting they worked in 2015, up from only 19.2 per cent in 1995. This is related to the general rise in the percentage of women of all ages in the workforce.

The percentage of women who were working at age 70 more than doubled between 1995 and 2015, increasing from 6.4 per cent to 17.1 per cent.

Vandenberg does woodworking, small engine repairs and a little welding on the side. “I’m always busy,” he says.

He could get by financially if he left his job, he says, but so far no one has suggested he retire. “Oh, hell no. I quit one time and they asked me to come back because nobody knew what they were doing.”

Vandenberg is mechanically minded, and he catalogues, maintains and fixes the tools at Titan. He has a skill set, developed over decades, that makes him a valued employee. 

Craig Riddell, a UBC professor of economics, says the trend toward working longer is driven in part by the aging of the baby boom generation, reduced pension coverage and a decline in financial incentives to retire.

“One of the principal causes is increased longevity, and people are staying healthy longer. Another important factor is the decline in pension coverage, especially in the private sector of the economy, and a gradual switch from defined benefit plans to defined contribution plans,” said Riddell.

A defined benefit plan, which provides a specific amount of money annually depending on years of service, provided an incentive to retire at 65, because you could work longer but you wouldn’t get an increased retirement benefit.

With defined contribution plans, the longer you work, the greater the return on your investment. “In a defined contribution plan, there is no incentive to retire. You can work as long as you like and keep building up the size of your retirement pot.”

Federal and provincial government policy changes, such as the elimination of mandatory retirement and changes to CPP policy, have made working longer more attractive.

“There is no incentive to retire early with the Canada Pension Plan if you like working,” said Riddell. CPP no longer has a specific retirement age, such as 65. Instead, there is a retirement “window” between the ages of 60 and 70.

“The later you retire, the larger your monthly payment. If you are going to live an average lifetime, you will get the same amount in total. You don’t pay a penalty by retiring later. If you retire at 60, you get the lowest payment.”

The greatest increase in older workers is among women, in part because many of them had shortened careers because of child-rearing, said Riddell. He also notes that because couples often want to retire together, a recent study shows that when women stay in the workforce longer, it encourages men to also stay in the workforce. 

“People have a lot more choice now,” said Riddell, “and if they’ve done a bad job in financially preparing for retirement they are able to work and, if you want or need extra money, you are not forced to retire.”

Margaret Ann Ta, a bookkeeper, 68, is blunt about her reasons for working. “For me, the fixed income of retirement was a shock. I realized that if I wanted to continue to do things I like to do, like go to the theatre, I needed to bring in some extra income.”

Ta did not have a private sector pension plan, but saved for her own retirement while working in various creative fields. The 2009 stock market crash cut the value of her investments dramatically.

“When you are retired, you don’t know how long your savings, your RRSPs, your pensions have to last you. Twenty years, 30 years or 40 years if you live to be 90,” said Ta, who returned to bookkeeping eight years ago to bump up her savings.

“I’d like to have more money to travel,” said Ta, whose goal is to stop working by age 70.

But she also gets a kick out of her younger workmates. “It’s a different workforce, the way they do work. I like listening to them. They are really interesting, and very hopeful,” said Ta. 

Her advice to her younger counterparts is to be prepared for retirement, and not to go into retirement carrying debt. Ta also finds a sense of purpose in volunteering at the 411 Seniors Centre and practising yoga.

Christian St. Cyr, a labour market analyst, said it’s more than finances that keep older workers participating. “Some baby boomers are staying in the workforce because they financially need to keep working, but others are very oriented to contribute and work.

“For boomers, work became more gratifying, and baby boomers get a lot out of the influence and social position they have because of their job.”

Saint Cyr doesn’t think the trend will hold. “There is a point of critical mass where baby boomers will look around and see most of their peers have left. The first baby boomers turned 65 in 2011, the last will turn 65 in 2029 or 2031, depending on how you count it.”

Saint Cyr believes the working late trend will arc like a bell curve, with the bulk of boomers retiring between 2018 and 2021.

Joanne Dixon, who turns 70 on Jan. 17, worked for Vancouver Coastal Health and later Lion’s Gate Hospital in financial administration from 1992 through 2010 when she retired at the age of 62. 

“I thought this would be an opportunity to kind of hang out in my beautiful house, spend time with my neighbours and find meaningful things in my community to do.”

She said when she first retired she spent time with her aging parents and started volunteering, but within months she got a call from Coastal Health asking if she was interested in taking on a contract project. When that one was done, another one fell into her lap. 

“I felt like I still had something to contribute. And my experience is something my former employers are still interested in bringing back and using.”

Working because she chooses to do so feels different, and working on contract offers more flexibility. “It’s a pleasure to know that I can still contribute. It is the best of work and private life as well.”

She also says she would not want a full-time job that might take a full-time position away from a younger worker — but economist Riddell says it’s wrong to believe that allowing people to work longer reduces opportunity for younger workers. 

“There isn’t a fixed number of jobs in the economy. If more people want to work, those people once they find jobs will be spending more money and that generates additional jobs.”

Joanne’s husband, Paul Dixon, 66, drove a cab for 10 years before spending 25 years as a police dispatcher. Dixon retired at 55. “My blood pressure came down 40 points. Just by not working,” he said. 

He didn’t join a pension plan until he was in his 30s, so his retirement package after 24 years, although decent, was less than ideal. In addition, the Dixons are raising their grandson, now 17. 

“We had planned to be retired five or six years ago, downsized, move into an apartment and use the money to travel. That was our plan. But we’ve decided to shuffle that along another 10 years.”

He took on some municipal planning projects on contract after he retired, and then, after taking a freelance writing course, his life took a more creative turn. While still taking the course, he sold his first article, writing for Helicopter magazine. “I banged out a basic query letter, checked my email in the morning and got the offer right then and there.”

He’s been writing ever since. 

While the Dixons are thinking about slowing down, by combining pensions with part-time work they are able to provide for their grandson, keep their North Shore home and enjoy the benefits of living in the Lower Mainland, where they are active in their community and enjoy the arts.

While the Dixons still plan to work less and travel more in the coming decade, 80-year-old Vandenberg plans to keep showing up at the Titan warehouse.

The suggestion he might want to travel, rest or even relax makes him hoot with laughter. 

“I enjoy working,” he says. 

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