The real-life lessons for retirement we can draw from the Covid-19 crisis

May 02, 2020
The coronavirus has come in waves, changing the way we think and act in the world with every step. Source: Getty.

In 1946, psychiatrist, author and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl published the first edition of what would become the international bestseller, Man’s Search for Meaning, making the timeless observation: “In times of crisis, people reach for meaning. Meaning is strength”.

Every crisis the world faces is unique in its magnitude, historical context and legacy. We have no contemporary reference point for the scale, grief and disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, yet when any crisis upends society, two things happen, and both offer a useful way of thinking about what matters most in retirement.

Use crisis as a reminder

In the short term, the crisis acts as a wake-up call. A stark reminder that time is a gift and that family and social connections nourish us.

For better or worse, the unpredictability and isolation of recent weeks has caused us to hit the pause button on life as we know it. While exhausted frontline workers perform daily acts of heroism in hospitals and nursing homes, many of us suddenly have more time on our hands.

Time to reflect on what we are grateful for, and to think deeply about how our priorities may evolve in a post-Covid world. The pandemic’s tragic death toll reminds us that time is precious, and urges us to take stock, and reconsider the way we spend our days.

Rethink what ‘time’ means

In Why Milestones Matter: Time, Social Meaning and the Measure of the Moral Life, Scott Stephens, the ABC’s religion and ethics dditor, and co-host of ABC Radio program The Minefield, reflects on the ways we can think about time, and the choices available to us.

“The predominant way we think about time these days is as a scarce commodity that we dare not waste and therefore from which we must extract maximal achievements, experience or profit. We could call this a capitalist conception of time. But then there is the teleological or purposive notion that time is the gift given to us during which to pursue a complete life,” he says.

The latter definition of time has come to the fore during the coronavirus crisis. Social media is littered with straw polls of the positives people have taken from the recent lockdown measures, and answers tend to express gratitude for relative peace and quiet, the opportunity to slow down and reflect and the sound of birdsong. Time to garden, to read, to cook, to write, and walk. Time to attend to tasks we have been putting off, and more time with family members than may otherwise be possible.

Re-evaluate social connections

Yet for some, the flip-side to an abundance of spare time is the reality of loneliness and isolation, particularly for some older members of society. An inability to see grandchildren and other family members on a regular basis can have devastating consequences for mental wellbeing.

For more than 80 years, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has forensically tracked and analysed the lives and emotional wellbeing of hundreds of Americans from various backgrounds. Commencing in 1938, the original aim of the initiative was to identify some of the inputs to healthy ageing over the course of a lifetime. The study runs to this day, and the current director of the project is Dr Robert Waldinger, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

In a 2017 TED Talk entitled What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness’, Waldinger summarises the simple, yet powerful findings of the research.

“Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period,” he says. “It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they’re physically healthier and they live longer than people who are less well-connected, and the experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic. We learned that good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains.”

While intuitively we know how important it is to maintain our interactions with friends and family, from time to time we all need a reminder of the need to nurture these relationships more consciously.

Use crisis as an accelerant

While recent weeks have been an opportunity to reflect on what we value, and the things that truly matter, as the fog of the initial phase of the pandemic begins to lift, it is clear that elements of our collective change in behaviour will endure.

Society may not appear radically different on the other side of this crisis, but the disruption to our daily habits, and the adoption of new ones, is quietly causing many existing trends to gather pace, while hastening the demise of others.

This acceleration is most obvious in the widespread adoption of technology to overcome isolation by staying connected to friends and family via Skype and Facetime, accessing GP services  through virtual consultations, collaborating with colleagues using applications like Teams and Zoom, buying groceries online, making more use of meal delivery services and staying entertained by ramping up on-demand media usage.

Unsurprisingly, during the March quarter, Netflix added a record 15.8 million new, paid subscribers to its streaming service, while companies including Amazon, Zoom and Microsoft benefited from the spike in demand for online retail, communication and collaboration options. This quickening pace of adoption of many such online services has built a momentum that will further embed these interactions in our day to day lives, long after Covid-19 is in the rear view mirror.

What does this mean for your retirement?

In the near-term, the retirement experience is fraught – you are socially isolated, your savings may have taken a hit and the holiday you had been looking forward to is a pipe-dream.

Yet these things are temporary. The retirement phase of life, and the way people think about retirement, was already evolving in response to rising life expectancies, technological changes, lack of job security and declining government capacity to support us as generously as we age.

Again, parts of that evolution will now occur more rapidly. Job security has been further diminished in recent months, and this may cause some to defer retirement where that is an option. Over time, however, more widespread acceptance of remote working arrangements may provide opportunities for those in the retirement transition phase to continue working in more flexible ways, where they have the desire to do so.

The social security budget is also likely to remain under pressure. While the federal government has launched a raft of short-term stimulus measures to assist businesses and households through the economic downturn, due to the sheer size of the expenditure, the trend towards self-provision will accelerate in the long run as governments will not have the capacity to be as generous, even where that may be their preference.

Other changes are more likely to be transient. When it comes to travel, we will see a ‘localisation of the bucket list’ as overseas travel plans are shelved in favour of local holiday destinations.

There will be silver linings to the coronavirus cloud. One of the most important might be recognition of the need to better harness technology to improve wellbeing in retirement. As a means to enable deeper, richer communication between friends, family, and the community, and in particular to enhance convenience, flexibility and quality of life in retirement. Not to replace face to face interaction, but to complement it.

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your financial or legal situation, objectives or needs. That means it’s not financial product or legal advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a financial or legal decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get independent, licensed financial services or legal advice.

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