With better health and an increasing lifespan on their side, a number of Indians are rejecting the cut-off point at which they are expected to stop working. Lounge presents vignettes from the lives of those redefining the age of retirement
The personal finance pages of newspapers would make any average salaried person break out in a sweat. You are doomed, they seem to spell out. You will never have enough to survive the long (and expensive) old age that our healthcare system and economic structure are now promising us. Invest wisely in mutual funds, advise our financial gurus, and contain the damage arising from the combination of rising inflation and consistently falling interest rates of savings instruments like fixed deposits and provident funds that risk-averse Indians have traditionally preferred.
If you’re the sort whose bank account can be vacuumed clean just by school fees and onion prices, that dream retirement strategy will never be met. We are either looking at an old age of privations or an age of no retirement.
And yet, for many, retirement is a potential new beginning. Rather than an age where you stop working altogether, where you are seen as already having lived your most socially useful period of life, many of those in retirement see this as an active stage. “The stigma attached to the word retirement no longer exists. Socioculturally, it is no longer looked upon as a setback," says Purvi Sheth, chief executive officer of HR consulting firm Shilputsi.
For Mumbai-based Suma Varughese, who retired at age 60 last month as the editor of Life Positive, which describes itself as a body-mind-soul magazine, certain personal commitments meant that there was really not much scope to save till about five years ago. “I’m aware that as you grow older, you need more money"—especially for expenses related to health, she says. “I know there’s the dire possibility of my lingering on till well into the 90s," she laughs, pointing out that the gene for longevity seems particularly strong in her family. She is single, with no partner or children to depend upon. The former editor of Society magazine left the mainstream 21 years ago, following a “spiritual awakening". Since then, it’s been more or less an austere life—the only luxury she indulges in is travel.
Yet, Varughese says she had always been sure that she wanted to quit at 60, even though Life Positive’s official retirement age is 65—not wanting to be seen as “an old fogey holding on to something because they didn’t have anything else to do".
A couple of years ago, at the insistence of friends and colleagues, she started conducting writing workshops, first in Mumbai, then in Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad. “I’ve always wanted to be my own boss," says Varughese. “And this gave me the opportunity for independent income...now I have something to move into."
Still, as her date of retirement drew near, Varughese started getting deeply anxious. “I was overwrought...all I could see was expenses." She got into “a flurry of action", holding two workshops a month, till she took stock of her finances and realized she had “enough to keep body and soul together".
Yet, it’s not the money alone that’s compelling Varughese to continue working—even though she hopes that the workshops will allow her to “leave the nest egg for my extreme old age".
Varughese now aims to live a more measured life, with time for friends and family, but believes she would not be content being a couch potato, looking for reasons to be occupied, or “sitting waiting for death".
“I always wanted to contribute," she says. “And I will as long as there is life in me and the brain works."
When you’re not done at 60
According to the job portal Naukri.com, it’s not unusual any longer for retired people to seek employment. Avenues have opened up, mostly in teaching, the company’s research reveals, followed by production/manufacturing, sales, HR/recruitment and IT/software. V. Suresh, chief sales officer at Naukri.com, points to an increasing number of retired people from the Armed Forces in HR and administrative work. It is also true, though, that while there are enough retired jobseekers, they also crave, and believe that they deserve, a balance in life, preferring less stressful or part-time positions at this stage.
It’s relevant at this point to have a look at the 2017 retirement readiness survey conducted by the Netherlands-based Aegon Center for Longevity and Retirement in 15 countries, including India. The report says that “people in India aspire to continue working in the same field or in another field in retirement". This word has been used deliberately—more than the “need" to work, they “aspire" to work.
“The traditional view of retirement, where people stop working altogether, is fading as people’s relationship with work and leisure evolves," the report says, adding, “Retirement has become an active stage of life in which people aspire (that word again) to stay socially connected, participate in their communities, and remain economically active."
This is certainly true of Shyamal Mukherjee, 65, who retired from the media company Ananda Bazar Patrika (ABP) in 2012, and now divides his weekdays between two jobs in Delhi. From 9.30am-1pm, he is personal assistant to Rajya Sabha member Swapan Dasgupta; and from 1.30-4.30pm, he’s at the not-for-profit Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, where he has been the chief administrative officer since it was set up in 2013. “Frankly, over the weekend, if I don’t have concrete things to do, I feel bad," says this soft-spoken man, whose outward frailty belies the energy needed to balance the demands on his time.
Or, take the spirited couple Nusrat (65) and Afzal Khatri (67), who sold the successful packaging business they ran in the US for 15 years and returned to Mumbai while they were in their 50s so that they could give back to society while they were still physically and mentally able. Their commitment to environmental sustainability and reforestation in their Mumbai neighbourhood of Kandivali got them the Indira Gandhi Paryavaran Puraskar in 2007.
It’s not money that drives the Khatris. Without accepting any donations, the Khatris, along with student volunteers, transformed a junkyard behind the local Samata Nagar police station into a biodiversity park, which they named Dev Bagh. They also took up the reforestation of a section of Ramgadh Nagar in Kandivali East.
When they first arrived in Mumbai, they started by getting their hands dirty and cleaning up their own society and neighbourhood of garbage as well as creating a culture of composting. When they decided on this field, Nusrat did a course in horticulture, while Afzal did one in waste management.
“In 20 years, we have not even taken a Crocin," Nusrat says proudly as she speaks to me over the phone one afternoon from Dev Bagh, where they go to work thrice a week. They travel other days of the week to educational institutions to deliver lectures on sustainability and waste management. It’s not work though. They see it as their passion, their purpose in life. “The shift has to be in your mind," says Nusrat.
No stigma to retirement
Attitudes among middle-class Indians have clearly changed. “Life after retirement has started with our generation," says Anand Arya, 72, his mane of white hair the first thing that you notice. An Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta (IIM-C) graduate, Arya became known as an environmental activist after retirement. He has held management positions at IBM, DCM, Swadeshi Polytex Ltd and Continental Carbon India, and had been waiting practically all his working life to retire and gain control over his time. He held the directorship of some companies for five years after he retired in 2002, before finally giving up corporate life.
A tripod and camera stand just inside the front door of the birding enthusiast and photographer’s home in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, seemingly ready to be picked up whenever the urge to head out birdwatching hits him. Twenty-five years ago, Arya points out, he would have been deemed mad for pursuing this passion, and certainly so for filing petitions in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) and the Supreme Court to save Dhanauri, 400 acres of pristine wetland in Uttar Pradesh, his birding haunt, where he has also sighted some 150 Sarus cranes at the same time, apparently an unusual occurrence.
Arya has taken up other cases as well. He achieved partial success in his petition against then UP chief minister Mayawati taking over a forested area next to the Okhla Bird Sanctuary for building the Ambedkar Memorial Park. He was one of those who opposed Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s convention on the Yamuna floodplains in Delhi in 2016. The Dhanauri petition expended to a plea to protect wetlands across the country.
Arya points out that previous generations did not have the avenues and opportunities to aspire to do something with their lives after retirement. “Social norms have changed," he says. There’s also the fact that an increase in earning levels has been accompanied by a breakdown of the joint family system, leading to reduced financial responsibilities, allowing Indians the freedom to live life on their own terms.
This is corroborated in part by Aegon’s 2016 report for India, which found that Indians “are way ahead of the global community when it comes to having a retirement strategy"—84% of Indian workers had one, including part-time workers. Of course, their preparedness could be attributed to the absence of a fallback plan. “While around the world, many workers expect to rely heavily on government benefits, Indians may have already recognized that they will have to rely less on their government and more heavily on their own personal savings and investments to fund their retirement," the report says. Arya sees himself as financially comfortable, especially since his only daughter, a radiologist, is now “well-settled".
Mukherjee, too, insists that he doesn’t work for financial stability, but there’s a touch of pride on his face as he confesses that he hasn’t even touched his retirement benefits yet. His only real expenses are the trips to the US and Canada that he makes twice a year to visit his daughter and sister.
There was never any concerted effort on Mukherjee’s part to find a job after retirement; his past work recommended him. For 34 years, from 1977-2012, he worked with ABP, where he was the circulation manager in charge of the northern division, administrative and finance head at the Delhi office, and printer/publisher of Business World magazine. When it was time for him to retire, Ashok Ganguly, who is chairman of the ABP group and, at the time, a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha, insisted that he assist him with his parliamentary work. “I consider (the fact that I never gave up working) a blessing from Dr Ganguly. He would say you have to work till 75; don’t sit idle," says Mukherjee.
Ganguly assigned Mukherjee the task of putting the Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) funds (Rs5 crore per year for six years) to use. It was an Herculean task, says Mukherjee, considering that Ganguly had barely spent a penny of it in the three years he had already been a parliamentarian. Mukherjee identified 175 projects across the country, from Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Odisha to Maharashtra and Uttarakhand. Ganguly’s only guidelines were that the funds should be spent in the fields of education, women’s empowerment, solar energy and sanitation.
When Dasgupta got nominated to the Upper House, he too sought Mukherjee’s services to help him with his Rajya Sabha work and utilize his share of the funds for development work in the North-East and West Bengal, where, incidentally, his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is actively seeking to expand its base.
“I work to keep engaged," Mukherjee says.
One of the driving forces to continue to work, even part-time, appears to be a nagging fear among retirees—not entirely disproved by the medical community—that being suddenly professionally disengaged can lead to mental and physical deterioration. When Chennai-based T. Sankaralingam formally retired as chairman and managing director of National Thermal Power Corporation, in 2008, he decided he had to remain active, physically and mentally, to prevent the process of “ageing fast". Nearly a decade later, he continues to be on the board of several private power producers. In any case, he believes retiring at 58-60 is not relevant any longer since a healthy human being can contribute for a good 5-10 years more.
Of course, there is some irony in the fact that the majority of workers in India (92%) are in informal employment (according to an International Labour Organization report which referred to 2011-12 National Service Scheme data). Since most of them do not have access to social security benefits, the option of retirement has never really existed for a large part of our 1.3-billion strong population.
‘Life after retirement has started with our generation,’ says Anand Arya. He points out that previous generations did not have the avenues and opportunities to aspire to do something with their lives after retirement. ‘Social norms have changed,’ he adds.-
“There are three stages of retirement," Arya tells me as he sips the tea he has been nursing over the hour we’ve been conversing. The first, he believes, is when you hit the standard retirement age, but can continue to actively contribute, work, do public service; the second is when you decide to devote yourself simply to pleasurable activities; and the third when you just wait for your day to come.
Arya says he’s ready to enter stage 2 now. Dhanauri will be his last case, he says. “An individual has so much capacity. I have limited time, resources and energy." If he had started 20 years earlier, Arya says, he would have started an organization that could carry the work forward.
But there’s another emerging stage of life as well: pre-tirement, towards which an increasing number of people are headed. As Sheth points out, these are people who may have peaked or become CEOs by their 50s, for whom the pressure of a fixed monthly salary is not as high, and who are ready to move out of full-time jobs into consulting roles or short-term projects, starting an entrepreneurial venture, or even switching careers drastically before the standard retirement age. “The definition of retirement has changed slightly," she says.
One of those in pre-tirement is 53-year-old Sandeep Bhandarkar. Having done a BTech from the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, and then postgraduation from Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, Bhandarkar spent about 10 years in the finance sector, with ICICI and ICICI Prudential AMC. He now calls himself a serial entrepreneur, having first started his own financial technology company FinEng Solutions, which he exited in 2010. In 2012, he founded WillSecure, an online law portal that helps Indians organize their estate, but plans to exit this soon too.
This year, Bhandarkar has taken more than a metaphorical leap, having decided to become a full-time running coach. A state-level badminton player in school, he renewed his interest in fitness sometime in 2005, when he decided to train for a marathon. This weekend hobby led to him attending certificate courses in fitness and diet management in a bid to improve on his own performance—he completed his first marathon in 2005 in 4 hours, 49 minutes; last year, it took him 3 hours, 31 minutes; his first half marathon in 2006 took him 2 hours, 36 minutes and, last year, a substantially reduced 1 hour, 38 minutes.
Word spread, and after initial requests from friends, Bhandarkar now trains around 40-50 people, not just in Mumbai, where he lives, but in Chennai, across Gujarat, and even a couple of runners in Jakarta, Indonesia, sending them personalized weekly training and diet plans. Over the next few years, he is looking at not just growing the coaching franchise, but also building an advanced training app and conducting clinics and information sessions to educate runners on how to improve timings and stay injury-free.
Bhandarkar confesses that his children, one in Duke University and the other studying in class X, “find (his professional choice) amusing, since it’s different from what they see other fathers do. Though they are proud too, in a way."
Bhandarkar is not sure how long he will sustain the coaching career, but says he is really enjoying it right now. He also started learning how to play the guitar when he turned 50, and is an advisor with Jai Vakeel Foundation, a vocational training school for children with special needs.
Bhandarkar and many others like him are redefining the age of retirement. No longer do they feel compelled by norms that dictate how long they should work and when they should stop.
Retirement, as we know it, is a relatively modern concept, only as old as the 19th century. It already seems in need of an official update.