I’m 80 years old and I don’t know when I’ll retire

“I find it appalling that people who contributed to Canadian society for decades are working when they’d rather not because a government pension can’t support them—if they have one at all”

(Photograph by Riley Smith)

I’m 80 now, but I’ve been working pretty steadily since the 1950s. As a teenager, I was employed as a teen-market salesperson at CHML, a radio station in my hometown of Hamilton, then I worked at Robinson’s, a local department store. In my twenties, I was hired as a fill-in youth director at the Hamilton YMCA, and I ended up staying with the national organization for 28 years—despite the fact that I wasn’t accumulating a pension. Eventually, I moved to Halifax to become the Y’s Atlantic area coordinator. In 1991, in my late 40s, I left the Y to become CEO of the Lung Association of Nova Scotia, where I stayed for 15 years. When I retired in 2006, at the age of 63, I expected that my days of full-time work were over, and that I’d spend the rest of my days with my wife, Esther, enjoying our hobbies, like leading a recreational walking group around Halifax. 

READ: The Big Idea: Help seniors age at home

In the lead-up to retirement, I calculated that I had enough savings and personal investments to fund the basics, like electricity and phone bills and food, as well as gifts for family and friends. Esther and I had already paid off the mortgage on our three-bedroom townhouse, and our two daughters had long since moved out and established their own careers. Without a pension, I figured I’d always have to take on odd jobs to afford any extras, like travelling and university money for my grandkids, who were toddlers at the time. 

But in the last few years, the soaring costs of groceries, gas and other travel have prevented me and so many of my contemporaries—who have already been in the workforce for five or six decades—from living the lifestyles we want unless we take on full-time work. So, 17 years and multiple failed attempts at full retirement later, I’m now the chief education and advocacy officer at the Canadian Association of Retired Persons, or CARP, an organization that pushes for better health care, housing and financial security for elderly Canadians. I work between 50 and 60 hours a week, including monthly work trips to Toronto. I’m still healthy enough to put in long hours, and I have no plans to retire anytime soon.

I founded CARP’s Nova Scotia chapter in 2003, when I was just a volunteer. Back then, two of the biggest issues facing seniors were rampant online scams and frauds, targeted emails that asked vulnerable elderly people for money for made-up charities. Recently, however, the main concerns that retired people have raised with us are financial in nature. I’ve spoken with many seniors who are afraid of running out of money: their pensions have stagnated as inflation has increased, and basics like rent and food are eating into their savings. Many octogenarian members—healthy ones, without medical costs—worry that our government’s pension plans and fiscal policies for elderly people do not account for the increasingly long average lifespan of Canadians, which has increased by almost 10 years since 1975. This summer, CARP surveyed more than 3,000 of our members, and we found that 41 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 65 and 75 were still working part-time, at least. Half of those respondents said they were very worried about outliving their savings. 

On the pension front, just 30 per cent of Canadian pensioners have plans that grow in value over time and are adjusted for inflation. The other 70 per cent are on fixed incomes. I know some teachers my age are receiving supposedly “good” pensions—except for the fact that their payments haven’t increased in 20 years. As a result, many have either returned to the classroom or taken entry-level jobs in hospitality and retail, as bellhops and cashiers. I know a clergywoman in her 60s who retired a few years ago because she had cancer and tired easily; now, she works 30 hours or more as a counsellor to make ends meet. Another CARP member, who is in a wheelchair, came out of retirement and took a desk job for the same reason.

We can’t completely blame the situation on the cost of living. Many of the federal government’s tax and financial rules for seniors fail to adequately support us. They haven’t changed to meet the current reality of our economy. Canadians are forced to start cashing in our registered retirement income funds, or RRIFs, the year we turn 72, even if we don’t need the money right then. Worse, in 2022, the federal government increased old age security payments by 10 per cent for people 75 and older, but not for those aged 65 to 74, as if that demographic doesn’t need the money. That’s poppycock. The 65-to-74-year-olds I know have a laundry list of expenses—their own mortgages, of course, but many of them are now also helping their children buy and pay for their own houses.

When I raise the issue of seniors struggling financially, I’m often met with a suggestion: Why don’t they just sell their houses? There is a misconception that seniors are all just sitting on million-dollar homes while millennials and Gen Zs flounder in a brutal market. Not all seniors own expensive homes. I’ve also spoken to countless realtors who tell me about seniors who want to sell but can’t find an apartment or condo in their community that’s available within their price range. Some senior homeowners end up taking out a reverse mortgage, which can quickly liberate significant sums of money. Some seniors end up having to take on extra work regardless.

READ: Why preparing emotionally for retirement is just as important as having a financial plan

As more and more Canadians are forced to work into their later years, the Canadian workforce itself is going to have to evolve. A Harris Poll from 2022 found that 40 per cent of Canadian companies are desperate to fill vacant roles, with some companies settling for employees with little to no experience. Even still, many businesses are reluctant to hire older Canadians, who some employers see as tech-illiterate or hesitant to change. I’ve met many seniors who are desperate for work but unable to land steady gigs because they’re passed over for new graduates. To me, seniors are a boon for business: we typically have lots of experience, require minimal feedback and supervision, and can work during the summers, when younger Canadians with families often take time off. 

As a post-retirement worker in 2023, I’m no longer an anomaly. I’m so lucky that I enjoy my job, and at this point, my advocacy work gives me enough purpose that I don’t want to retire, even if I could. But I still find it appalling that people who contributed to Canadian society for decades are working when they’d rather not because a government pension can’t support them—if they have one at all. People of my generation weren’t prepared for this reality. Earlier in our lives, full retirement at 65 was the promise. We thought we’d spend the last years of our lives taking up hobbies, volunteering or spending quality time with our grandkids. Being robbed of that dream has been a huge blow for so many. 

If I could redo my career, I’d think about saving sooner and make sure I had a trustworthy financial planner who’d help me grow my income from my first paycheque. That’s the advice I give to younger people these days: do everything you can to set yourself up for the later parts of your life. You can’t predict what the future holds. I certainly couldn’t have predicted that I’d still be working as I approach my 81st birthday.

—As told to Alex Cyr

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