Work After 50? How About 100?

Soon, according to the World Health Organization, holding a job on our 100th birthday won't be unusual.
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When playwright Michael Frayne was interviewed about "Copenhagen," his critically acclaimed play, he had this to say: "The last few years seem to be quite fertile. From the age of 65 it all gets better as you go along." He was 75 at the time.

Today, working through our sixties still seems unnatural and carrying on into our seventies positively outré. But soon, according to the World Health Organization, holding a job on our 100th birthday won't be unusual. John Beard, director of the WHO's department of aging and the life course, says that most people born in developed countries today can expect to live well past 100, with the onset of disabling illness delayed close to the end of life. "This means that we'll be working into our seventies, eighties, nineties, and beyond," he says.

Sound far-fetched? It's already beginning to happen. According to the RAND Corporation, 17 percent of older American men and women (ages 65 to 75) were in the workforce in 1990; today, this statistic has risen to 25 percent. A significant jump in employment among those over 75 was also seen. And RAND researchers project a sharp increase in both numbers in the next decade.

Jerry Morris is a sign of things to come. Just after World War II, British researchers noticed that people were having heart attacks in record numbers. As a scientist, he set up an extensive study to examine heart attack rates in different occupations. The first results showed a striking difference in busmen: sedentary drivers were more than twice as likely to die of a heart attack as the conductors who went up and down 500 steps a day.

Jerry had stumbled on a great truth -- exercise helps you live longer. It certainly worked for him: he exercised regularly all his life and, at 101, still made his way each day to his office at the London School of Hygiene and Medicine. And this wasn't simply putting in time: Jerry continued to lobby government to encourage people to take up regular exercise. (Sadly, Jerry passed away last year, but not before he learned that the story about him in the Financial Times of London was one of the ten most popular features of the year.)

Research for my new book, "RIPE," has unearthed all kinds of older people doing their thing, blissfully unaware that they "should" have retired long ago. German ceramicist Eva Zeisel, 104, said it best: "What do you mean 'still'? I'm working!"

Doris McCarthy is one of my favourite examples. Doris bloomed late. Though she had been making art since her youth, it wasn't until her retirement from teaching at 62 that she took up her life's work, becoming one of Canada's most renowned artists, with works in public and private collections around the world. But first she had to overcome some powerful social conditioning. "When I retired from teaching I thought that the next major event of my life would be dying," she said. "There was no imagining that the best years were still ahead of me."

When I was in my mid-forties and Doris McCarthy had just entered her ninth decade, I went to one of her openings. As the artist and I stood together in front of an oil painting of an iceberg that she had made while on a recent trip to the Arctic, I asked how long it had taken to make it. "A lifetime," she said. This summer, she celebrated her 100th birthday, and, yes, shes is "still" painting.

"RIPE" will definitely include stories of men and women who work long, long, long after the traditional retirement age, for all kinds of reasons and in all kinds of ways. What's your plan for the years after 50? And what would you like my book to include -- what would make it really useful to you, and to the people you love who really need inspiration and help? Please share by commenting below, or feel free to contact me via my website.

AARP resource. These good folks reached out to me this week, because they want to help women think ahead. Check out "Decide, Create, Share," their new public awareness program designed to help increase awareness of the importance of planning for the future. They've created a series of resources -- easy, free, practical tips that women can use to stay on track. There are clips from boomers like us, too.

Great TV. "Where Did I Put... My Memory?" is a smart and funny documentary about, oh, I forget. From the creative minds of Josh Freed and Barbara Doran, this is not to be missed.

Julia Moulden is an author, speaker, and columnist.