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Retiring isn’t a viable option for some – but for those fortunate enough, retiring enables them to spend time with family, serve the community and even embark on an “encore” career, says Cesar Balota.

Commentary: With so much to do as we grow older, can we ever ‘fully’ retire?

Older worker working on the laptop. (Photo: iStock/Edwin Tan)

18 Mar 2023 06:01AM (Updated: 18 Mar 2023 06:01AM)

SINGAPORE: Retirement adequacy has been a talking point in Singapore, on the back of changes to the Central Provident Fund (CPF) monthly salary ceiling and the Retirement Sum Scheme’s minimum monthly payouts.

As lawmakers debate how else Singapore can better address the needs of an ageing population, questions about whether retirement is within reach of the average citizen loom large. But another question to ask is whether people aspire to full retirement these days.

Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong said at a forum in January that the majority of people in Singapore want to work longer so long as they are healthy, pointing out that “there is something fundamental and important about work”.

These comments provoked discussion online about whether it really is true seniors want to work as long as they can.

There appears to be a number of social media users who do not agree. After all, wouldn’t most people want to be free from the stresses and monotony of working life, and do all those things that couldn’t be done because work got in the way?

Some pointed out the difference between “want to work” and “have to work” – when elderly continue holding down jobs because they need the additional income. It must be recognised that retiring isn’t a viable option for some, and that lower-income senior citizens need support to avoid a substantial drop in standard of living when they stop working.


For those who are fortunate enough to be able to retire – at the current minimum retirement age of 63 or even earlier, retiring does not mean never working again.

I have so far “retired” twice. In 2011, I was blessed with a nice handshake after the acquisition of the company I worked the Asia Pacific region for the previous seven years. Towards the end of 2019, I again retired, this time from the non-profit that I had joined a few months after my first retirement.

When I first retired in 2011, I did indeed look forward to less work travel and being more involved in the community, particularly through my church and para-church affiliations.

One paradox of retirement is that we look forward to spending more time with family. But the children are grown up and have their own lives and pursuits to occupy themselves.

Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” lyrics come to mind. As the son grew up, he said, “I’m gonna be like you, Dad.” And he kept asking “When you comin’ home, Dad?” The father’s answer: “I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then. You know we’ll have a good time then.”

Later in life, the roles reversed. The father reflected, “As I hung up the phone, it occurred to me, he’d grown up just like me.”

I am grateful that while the children were smaller, long before the buzzword work-life balance became fashionable, we took the time as a family to enjoy and explore interesting activities around Singapore and during family holidays abroad.

Hence, when I was approached a few months later to take a role at a non-profit, I welcomed this as another avenue of giving back to community, even as the role allowed me to spend time with the family and with church-related activities.


Like me, prospective retirees look forward to more time for family and hobbies. But they may also doubt what comes next without the everyday routine of work, fearing they may feel bored or purposeless in time.

The general advice from experts is to not just think of what we’re retiring from – KPIs, stress, office politics, work monotony, the tiring daily commute – but more so of what we’re retiring to. The latter includes time for creative projects, reading, learning, spontaneity and general relaxation.

Psychologists note that there is a need to know oneself, plan ahead, open up to new pursuits, consider one’s legacy (not just financially) and possibly even what some call an “encore career”.

In my experience so far, giving back to the community has given me a purpose that does not require an official job title.

Even better, I have time to take care of my grandchildren, which keeps me both active and thinking young. I marvel at how the world they’re growing up in has changed so much from the time when my own children were doing so. My wife and I try to adapt and provide new guidance for new challenges, but still have the privilege of being part-time doting caregivers.


In a sense, health permitting, I will probably never fully retire. I am grateful that I have found meaningful pursuits, and will continue being involved in these, whether in paid or voluntary roles.

At the same time, I will certainly want to continue spending time with the family and the grandkids as they grow up.

I am humbled as well by friends and acquaintances who, with seemingly less materially, are even more active in serving others around them in big or small ways. Some gave up promising careers early in life to serve in missions or charity work, and even in “retirement”, continue to support those causes.

It is said that if you choose a job you love, you never have to work a day in your life. I might add that if you find a purpose other than money and power, you will probably never stop working – happily so.

Having retired twice in the last 12 years, I can say that retirement is an experience each of us must determine for ourselves based on our circumstances. My own outlook and actual practice of retirement will continue to evolve.

Cesar Balota is a Singaporean management professional who has remained active in outreach groups since “retiring” from a non-profit organisation in 2019.

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