Retirement is not just about petunias and gardening (Tony)
Article Words : Jennifer Cox | 01 June

Retirement is not just about petunias - there is shark wrestling, too

(Not so) young, dumb and full of a big pension – why are the over-50s ditching Eastbourne and going extreme?

You know what these thrill-seeking travellers are like: reckless, taking unnecessary risks, setting off uninsured without researching the places they’re visiting – still, that’s the over-50s for you.

This seems to have been the findings of a recent survey by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) into the travel habits of the over-50s, an age group that now accounts for more than 35% of all trips abroad. Of the over-50s surveyed, one in four said they were considering swimming with sharks, while 65% said they had travelled without insurance.

The FCO are worried. “We have noticed an increasing number of over-50s swapping relaxing holidays in Marbella for treks in the Himalaya,” a spokesman for the FCO said. The FCO has even published a booklet of travel tips targeted at this group.

Being 50-plus is not old, so really it should come as no surprise that this age group wants a more active travel experience, and more often. This has been borne out in another report – from Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) – announcing that Golden Gappers (a joyless term for those uninhibited, uninsured, shark-wrestling over-50s) have soared from 21% of its volunteers in 2000 to 52% in 2007. At the same time, the 20- to 30-something Gen-X gappers have plummeted from 79% in 2000 to an astonishingly low 48% in 2006.

VSO thinks this is due to 50-plus-ers using late career breaks or early retirement to volunteer in developing countries, while Gen-X-ers stay home in droves, fearing travel will damage their work prospects and drain savings they desperately need to get onto the property ladder.

Help the young

When did young people get so serious? I went travelling after uni because the only thing I knew for sure was that I didn’t want a life-sentence mortgage at the age of 23.

A gap year after school or uni, or even mid-career, is the perfect way to get some time and perspective on the direction your life is taking. But is it more beneficial taken at the end of a working life – for people who have paid off their mortgage and met their career goals – rather than when you’re starting out?

VSO is concerned by the upwards shift in age – it needs volunteers who “can take up placements in perhaps more challenging countries” (a worry undermined when you consider the FCO’s warning that the over-50s are embracing challenges with unbridled enthusiasm). But now we’re living longer and are in better health, older people not only have more skills, experience and money to offer overseas projects, they arguably benefit more from the experience.

Precisely because we are living for longer, retirement needs to be more than just days spent doing the Telegraph crossword and tending the petunias. A gap year not only offers stimulation, a fresh outlook and new friends, it also opens up our expectations about how – with time and money on our hands – we can play an active and significant role in the world, rather than feeling diminished and redundant.

And is something deliciously subversive happening as a result? Are young people being forced to stay home and save pennies because their fun-loving, 50- something parents are travelling the world, blowing their inheritance, getting in touch once in a blue moon to say they’re having a fine old time?

Oh, the irony.

Jennifer Cox was the spokesperson for Lonely Planet before writing the travel bestseller Around the World in 80 Dates

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