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Reinventing retirement

Reinventing retirement

iStock.com / Don White

“More leisure and free time, fewer demands, more opportunity for physical exercise. And travel, we’ve taken lots of trips.” Mike Gasher retired three years ago, at 61, from his position as a professor in the department of journalism and director at the Centre for Broadcasting and Journalism Studies at Concordia University.

He has no difficulty rhyming off a few reasons why he and his wife are enjoying retirement. “I was just getting home from the gym when you called,” he says. “I also had a long list of books to read that had nothing to do with my research interests. Novels, for one. And mostly, I retired because it was just time.”

Gasher is typical of the new face of retirement in Canada: he chose when he wanted to leave his employment — in his case, four years prior to the “usual” age of 65 — his health is excellent, and his statistical prospects for living long are better than they’ve ever been in history.

Until recently though, retirement was not always a personal choice. Most Canadians, including academics, retired at 65 because mandatory retirement rules compelled them to do so. Add in the fact that workers can apply for and receive their accumulated Canada Pension Plan benefits at that age, and the number became synonymous with “retirement.”

But around 30 years ago, a maturing baby boomer cohort, already reshaping demographics in Canada, began to question the law. Discrimination based on age had been banned under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and mandatory retirement became a legal battlefield. Decisions of courts and human rights tribunals fell in line, declaring that forced retirement constitutes illegal discrimination. Many governments and other employers eliminated their retirement policies as it became clear that legally, age means nothing unless it is specifically a bona fide factor for certain individuals performing certain jobs — today the only remaining exception allowing forced retirement.

In 2005, Ontario legislated the end of mandatory retirement for workers aged 65 and older. The labour minister of the time, Chris Bentley, summed up the new way of regarding retirement: “People are healthier and living longer so it is unfair to insist that they stop working simply because they turn 65. Ending mandatory retirement would allow workers to retire based on lifestyle, circumstance and priorities.”

And they are. Statistics Canada reveals that many of us are working longer, with employment of those between 65 and 69 increasing at the fastest rate. And according to data gathered through the 2016 census, educated workers are the most likely to remain employed, a reality reflected at universities and colleges not just by the fact that the professoriate is getting older generally through all ranks, but by an increase in the number of academic staff who are choosing to work past 65.

Pat Armstrong fits this other side to the new face of aging and work. A distinguished research professor of sociology at York University who co-chairs CAUT’s Equity Committee, Armstrong has no immediate plans to leave her job. “There are a lot of reasons why I continue past 65. I enjoy much of what I do, and find the work rewarding. I also think I can make a difference and have important things to contribute, such as a long history on pay equity, discrimination and health care reform that can inform research and teaching,” she says.

Armstrong points to how mandatory retirement affects certain groups more than others, such as women whose careers are interrupted by childbearing, along with racialized academic staff who are often paid less throughout their careers.

That was the case with Ursula Franklin, a physics professor who after retiring from her position at the University of Toronto, joined in a class action lawsuit asserting the university had been unjustly enriched by paying women less than men. In 2002, Franklin and about 60 retired female faculty won a pay equity settlement to compensate them for years of lower salaries and pensions.

Despite such legal gains, however, age discrimination persists. It may no longer be acceptable to force professors into retirement, but some politicians are mistakenly blaming older staff for blocking career opportunities for younger academics.

“It’s the promotion of the politics of envy, and it’s quite depressing,” Armstrong says, referring to the budget introduced by Ontario’s Conservative government. The budget promised legislation to end so-called “double-dipping” by university and college professors, some of whom are entitled to draw a salary and pension simultaneously after a certain age, pursuant to their collective agreements and particular pension plans.

The law will empower the province to force a post-secondary institution to reduce or eliminate the compensation of any employee also receiving a pension. The government claims the growing average retirement age among university faculty is “limiting turnover that would bring in earlier career professionals with new teaching methods and increase diversity.”

Armstrong says the tactic is not only a thinly veiled attempt to force retirement, but that it solves nothing. “The notion that without a guarantee a university would even hire a younger person full-time to fill the spot of anyone retiring is ridiculous. There are many public servants who collect a pension and work full-time, so why are they targeting academics? Finally, this is our money. Pensions are deferred earnings, and the accusation that it’s a free ride is completely wrong.”

She notes, with some irony, that she wasn’t allowed to postpone collecting her pension. “I would have been fine with doing that, because I’m paying hefty taxes.”

Her tax situation is another piece of the modern retirement puzzle, of which the age of retirement is just one aspect. With 70 or even 75 fast becoming the new 65, the picture is not coming together as seamlessly as before.

“It’s a massive change, and a really important one, especially for occupations like university instructors who are increasingly healthy and engaged longer and wanting to continue to contribute,” says Chris Roberts, director of social and economic policy for the Canadian Labour Congress.

What it means for benefit plans “is still playing out,” but “we need to reject anyone pitting generations of workers against each other. Because of how the broader labour market is developing, it has allowed institutions to capitalize on and exploit contract academic staff,” he says. “The precarious workforce in academia is its own outrage and needs to be addressed as a separate, unacceptable development.”

Roberts says tax laws tend to encourage retirement at around 65, but as workers increasingly demand more flexibility, an “incomplete framework” that varies by province and hinges on human rights legislation, the rules of individual pension and benefit plans, and collective agreements, means careful planning is required.

Part of the evolving framework he references is that most provincial human rights laws still allow age discrimination when it comes to some benefits and insurance plans, though these “carveouts” are increasingly being challenged.

Roberts cites the recent example of a ruling by the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal in Talos v. Grand Erie District School Board, where it was found that an exception to age discrimination still permitted under the Ontario Human Rights Code that distinguished between workers under and over the age of 65, is unconstitutional pursuant to the Charter, meaning that termination of group health care benefits like drug, dental and life insurance is discriminatory.

In British Columbia, the Okanagan College Faculty Association is grieving the employer’s failure to provide life, long-term disability, and accidental death and dismemberment insurance to members over 65 who continue to work, with hearings scheduled for September.

“When someone in our bargaining unit reaches 65 and makes the decision to continue to work, the fact that they lose these benefits is essentially a pay cut,” says Rod Watkins, a philosophy professor at Okanagan College and chief steward of OCFA. “Yet they’re doing the same job as they did a week before they turned 65. This is about fairness.”

OCFA argues that not only does the termination of benefits over 65 comprise age discrimination contrary to the Charter, but that the BC Human Rights Code carveout may amount to the same.

Watkins believes that such issues aren’t going away. “We have an aging population but healthier than ever, so it’s very likely that a good portion will continue to work past 65 because they’re still perfectly capable of doing so,” he says.

But because of the myriad considerations and shifting legal landscape, Chris Roberts warns that deciding when to retire is actually much more than a lifestyle choice. “My most important message is there’s no substitute to working with your plan actuary or your financial planner and going through all the details so you make the decisions that are ideal for you. There is no template or common rule. You have to tailor to your circumstances.”

For Mike Gasher, getting an expert opinion finalized his decision to retire when he did. “What probably pushed me out the door about a year earlier than I’d been planning was the government of Quebec talking about changing some of the benefits in the public sector pension plan,” he recalls. “We had a defined benefit plan, and if I’d waited too long I might have lost some of the perks that go with that. I talked with a financial advisor to see if I could retire, and also to understand what was happening.”

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