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Outside the Lab Profession

Stepping Stones to Retirement

In my early sixties, I developed a serious illness and had to take several months off from work. When I was able to return, my colleagues encouraged me to work part-time, with flexible hours, before resuming full-time employment. I took their advice, and it soon became apparent that I could actually retire from full-time work and continue on a fixed-term, part-time basis. Not only was this financially attractive (ensuring an optimum long-term pension), but it was also in keeping with my wish to step down towards retirement, rather than opt for a sudden cessation of full-time work.

When I made my wishes known, the medical director at my hospital was very supportive and made arrangements for the necessary change of contract; we agreed that I would sign a two-year, part-time contract. One of my consultant scientist colleagues made a similar arrangement at a similar time – and, in practice, the outcome was equivalent to us sharing a single full-time job.

One result of my part-time appointment was that I was no longer head of department or clinical director, meaning that the remaining work was shared by other staff members. As a result, when my colleague and I reached the ends of our contracts and chose to fully retire from National Health Service (NHS) employment, our posts were not replaced in the newly formed network between Aintree and the Royal Liverpool Hospital pathology services, now called Liverpool Clinical Laboratories. Instead, our duties were divided between other staff members in the department.

Retirement is often no longer a single event, but a gradual process over years or even decades.

After retiring from NHS employment, I have not only continued volunteering for activities and organizations that interest me, but even taken on new part-time volunteering challenges. These includes work for the Royal College of Pathologists, the Association for Clinical Biochemistry and Laboratory Medicine, the mental health charity Mind, Rare Disease UK, and the local hospital public and patient involvement panel. I can participate in these organizations on a flexible, part-time basis – and I have the freedom to choose only what interests me the most. And that keeps me motivated, so I can continue to be mentally active and engaged to prevent the onset of dementia.

Lately, I have learned that I am unwittingly following a new trend towards “pre-tirement,” a term that arises from the fact that retirement is often no longer a single event, but a gradual process over years or even decades. “Pre-tirees” in their fifth, sixth and even seventh decades of life ease themselves gradually into retirement by reducing working hours in favor of other interests, such as volunteering, childcare, studying or exercise. A change of career and traveling more frequently are hallmarks of those in pre-tirement, although many also continue to work (whether paid or unpaid) well beyond the state retirement age. Retirement in the United Kingdom has become a process, not an event.

Making longer lives financially viable requires a fundamental rethink of life trajectories.

When asked about retirement, John Dean, director for quality improvement at the Royal College of Physicians, said (1), “I think that the concept is outmoded. If we’re lucky enough to spend each part of our lives doing a mix of what we enjoy, what rewards us, and what we’re best placed to do, then we should.” A recent leading article in The Economist magazine states that, as life becomes longer, the word retirement – which literally means “withdrawal to a place of seclusion” – has become misleading (2). At 65 you are not clapped out, but pre-tired. In a further special report, the author notes that making longer lives financially more viable requires a fundamental rethink of life trajectories (3).

I believe that those approaching the traditional retirement age might benefit from increased flexibility in working arrangements. Reduced hours, flexible part-time work and reduced on-call commitments might all contribute to wellbeing. After 40 years of doing out-of-hours, from a one-in-two rota as a junior doctor to one in 10 nights in my later career as a pathologist, coming off the on-call rota was a great relief even though it was not that demanding in the later stages. It’s my opinion that similar arrangements could help many pathologists live longer, happier working lives – and perhaps even help alleviate the “retirement cliff” that threatens pathology as a whole.

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  1. “John Dean: Committed to quality improvement”, BMJ, 357, j3049 (2017). PMID: 28659314.
  2. The Economist, “Retirement is out, new portfolio careers are in” (2017). Available at: Accessed August 24, 2017.
  3. The Economist, “Getting to grips with longevity” (2017). Available at: Accessed August 25, 2017.
About the Author
Charles van Heyningen

Charles van Heyningen is an International Advisor and Fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists, United Kingdom.


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