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The rise of the activist retiree

I know them, you know them, we all know them. Which is hardly surprising because, my dear fellow Australians, they are everywhere.

Oh, yes, for at least a decade now this new tribe has been sil­ently, purposefully, militantly ­assembling in suburban lounge rooms plotting their next adventures between pots of tea and plates of pikelets. And if you don’t know what a pikelet is then you’ll never be admitted to this group’s most sacred and secret meetings.

The tribe of which I speak is known by several names, but we shall know them by their political agenda. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to the Activist Retiree. To gain admittance to a secret meeting, would-be attendees approach the door, knock three times and say the phrase “ladies a plate”, which completely flummoxes and dissuades millennials but which makes perfect sense to a mixed gathering of boomer retirees.

Activist retirees are the first generation of retirees in history that will be — that already is — tertiary-educated, opinionated, articulate, literate and digitally savvy (by baby boomer standards), and with time on their hands. I hardly need remind you that this is a dangerous combination and ­especially for the complaints ­departments of local councils and government bodies.

Are you a retired somebody who is used to being, well, kinda at the centre of things? And who is struggling to find meaning in the days and weeks and years that stretch all the way from the banks of the ‘60s Retirement River to the edge of the 80s and the Great Abyss beyond? Some call this ­experience relevance deprivation syndrome, but I think it goes ­deeper into the heart and soul of the modern retiree.

Were you once at the centre of a vast organisation, a government department, a “thing” in the workforce where you had to contend with the outrageous demands of unappreciative underlings and with the incompetent doddering of ingrate overlings?

You were? You are in!

And when you were working in the workforce, did you rail against the madness, the pettiness, the ­bureaucracy of it all? And when your Great Retirement Day finally came around, were you ­officially happy but deep down were you also mourning the loss of it all? The routine. The gossip. The camaraderie. The prestige. The purpose of life.

And then one Friday afternoon, after speeches and cards and hollow commitments to stay in touch, did it all just evaporate? Do you miss it? It’s OK, you can say it out loud; you’re among friends here.

Well, pass the pikelets and pour me another cup of tea because this group of educated, opinionated, articulate and self-confident baby boomer retirees have found their mojo and a cause. Oh, don’t ­bother me with trivial questions about the nature of the cause; the point is that it’s a cause; we’re saving a suburb, the wetlands, the rainforest, a historic site, the fauna, the flora, the vista, the ­planet, from the evil clutches of — let me think about this — greedy developers? The top end of town? Corrupt local officials? Foreign ­investors? Dr Evil?

Oh, don’t weigh me down with awkward questions as to whether all this is actually true. The point is that our group meets, we discuss, we plot, we email, we organise, we have cups of tea, we enjoy — no, we revel in — the fellowship of the pursuit of righteousness. And doesn’t it feel good.

And on this holy crusade to save something (noble, of course) there comes the strategising, the organising, the opportunity to showcase skills and talents crafted and honed in the workplace. You haven’t retired; you’ve simply ­repurposed your skill set to generously deliver a legacy to the next generation.

You know, previous generations of retirees hitched up the caravan and toddled around Australia. Previous generations of retirees did the churchy thing. Previous generations of retirees more or less retired from public life at the end of their working life.

Not the baby boomers. No, no, no!

Did you know that (according to the census) the people most likely to believe in God are aged over 80? The closer you get to God, the closer you get to God. It’s hedging: if you think you’re going to bump into God any day then you’re more likely to believe. And it was also comforting; the church offers fellowship to all age groups.

But for today’s retirees belief is very much on the back foot. Today fellowship is apt to be formed amid the thrusts and the throes of protest and revolution, according to our ageing comrades.

And, you know, it’s not all “protest” that delivers retiree purpose — it can also be something as simple as taking pride in policing. Over-hanging branches obstructing pedestrian egress and ingress (whatever that means) on the footpath near the town hall?

Get on the warpath, demand an immediate response from the local council. Impress those young whippersnapper council officers that you’ve still got it by referencing and cross-referencing and footnoting all correspondence that you keep in a series of lever-arch files with sticky yellow notes enabling quick reference should you get called to do an interview.

Write to the local paper; set up a Facebook page; demand action from the mayor. Who knows, maybe the local paper will do a feature? Maybe the mayor will give you a telephone call to talk you down? The jackpot is, of course, getting national television news coverage and meeting a ­celebrity reporter (“who is really very nice once you meet her”).

Now that’s the kinda thing that’s good to fill the days, the weeks and the months that stretch out across the retirement years. Plus, you get the reputation-­burnishing dividend of being able to recount how you “called council to account” at every family gathering for years into the future. Bugger golf. Policing pedestrian footpaths from the folly and the litigation risk of overhanging foliage delivers way more fun.

I am of course being facetious in this story of retiree protest ­because in truth action groups ­(regardless of age) shape the quality of life in local communities.

But the overall point is made.

The next generation of retirees will go on cruises and downshift and spoil their grandchildren; many are already caring for their children’s children. Some are even caring for family members while others simply volunteer.

What cannot be denied is that there is a rising pool of Australians aged over 60 and who are not in the workforce. With the diminished influence of institutions like the church, retirees today and into the future will seek out new ways of finding meaning and purpose. And in this regard, nothing quite compares with the primal thrill of impacting the community (for the better) and leaving the legacy of a slightly better community.

Big business complaints depart­ments, “the banks”, whole government departments, noble environmental causes and the footpath foliage clearance department of local councils across Australia should all be put on notice. You have been warned; there is a wave of increasingly godless baby boomer retirees careening towards the activist retirement years (say, 60-75) looking for ways to give meaning to their lives, to connecting with others and to leave the world a slightly better place.

And which sounds kinda good. Where do I sign up? Knock, knock, knock and “ladies a plate”.

By Bernard Salt.

This article was originally published in The Australian.

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