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David and Kaaren Bell sit in the garden of their Ontario home in a rare moment of relaxation. These ‘retirees’ are likely busier than many people decades younger. ‘I’ve had so many other irons in the fire,’ says Dr. Bell, a 69-year-old consultant.Galit Rodan for The Globe and Mail

David Bell retired at 61 as dean of York University's environmental studies faculty because "I wanted to cut my work week in half, to 48 hours."

Eight years later, it really depends week to week whether he has succeeded.

"I've had so many other irons in the fire," says Dr. Bell, now a 69-year-old consultant.

He has served as chairman of federally-operated Downsview Park in northwest Toronto, sat on the now-abolished National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy and headed (as a volunteer) a national educational organization, Learning for a Sustainable Future, as well as a provincial one, Education Alliance for a Sustainable Ontario.

That's when he's not consulting to governments, including China and Jamaica, or playing his regular gig as a jazz bass player (he studied with Ray Brown, Oscar Peterson's long-time sidekick).

David's wife, Kaaren, who took early retirement several years ago from her job as a counsellor at a community college, is also busier than many people decades younger. She took care of her ailing mother until her passing, and now she is constantly on the go supporting and mentoring her two grown-up children and their families, with a third grandchild expected this month. That's when she's not working on a "culinary memoir," combining family recipes with family history.

How is it that some people who retire, or are forced out of their jobs, seem lost and bewildered, while others, such as the Bells, seem to be more in demand? It's a question more and more Canadians are asking, as they discover that the age of retirement is now on a sliding scale.

"Personally I believe we define retirement wrong," says Bill Hill, national retirement planning consultant for the Royal Bank of Canada.

Mr. Hill, 59, conducts as many as 100 sessions a year, meeting Canadians in their 50s, 60s and 70s and helping them prepare for the transition from a full-time job.

He discusses, usually in small groups, what aging but still active people can do to remain marketable – what kinds of attitudes, skills and knowledge they need to stay relevant, whether it's in the job market, the volunteer sector or just to have fun.

"We define retirement as stopping work. But it should be defined as filling your days doing what you enjoy doing," Mr. Hill says.

The modern concept of retirement is relatively new. It began in late 19th-century Germany, when Emperor Wilhelm I wrote Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, telling him that: "Those who are disabled from work by age and invalidity have a well-grounded claim to care from the state."

The original retirement age was set at 70, later lowered to 65, on the assumption that most people wouldn't live much longer than that and it wouldn't cost the government too much to take care of them for a year or two.

Changing demographics, an uncertain economy and new attitudes about what it means to be an older Canadian have turned the old assumption on its head.

In the 2012 federal budget, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty brought in changes to Canada's Old Age Security benefits, raising the age for eligibility to 67 from 65 starting in April of 2023.

Seniors make up the fastest growing segment of Canada's population; according to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, in 2011, an estimated five million Canadians were 65 or older, a number that's expected to double to reach 10.4 million by 2036.

With more seniors and a persistently tight job market, it's more important than ever for aging Canadians to stay marketable. The first step is to put some thought into your long-term goals, Mr. Hill says.

"At our events, I ask people to write down: Who are you going to be when you retire? A significant number of people don't know what to write."

The challenge is to be realistic, Mr. Hill explains.

"A lot of older workers need to overcome perceptions that they don't know how to use the latest computers, that they're going to be sick all the time or that they want to take off work every January," he says. It isn't necessarily fair, and it often isn't true, but the perceptions are there nevertheless.

Retired, not tired

Bill Hill, national retirement planning consultant for Royal Bank of Canada, has the following tips for staying marketable and active in the work force:

Stay up to date

Keep up to date and be open to new ideas, especially ones where you can add your experience and knowledge. Employers like to have some older workers with an institutional memory, but they don't want a know-it-all who says: "Been there, tried that, it didn't work."

Be willing to adapt

Mr. Hill says he encounters too many people who are "one in 10 workers – they say, 'If someone ticks me off one more time, I'm out of here in 10 minutes!'" You're more marketable if you're not always eyeing the door.

Be flexible

Keep your mind open to new possibilities, whether they're in your current workplace or somewhere else. "I've been with the bank for 35 years but I love it because I've been lucky enough to have three or four different careers within it," Mr. Hill says.

Keep at work that you love.

"It doesn't matter whether it's blue-collar or white-collar work. I know a lot of people who fix cars, and then they leave full-time work and earn a good living doing something that's their passion," Mr. Hill says.

Think ahead

Your work life after 50 is probably going to have a few phases – an active phase, then an income phase where you're on pension or fixed income and then a frail phase when, eventually, you really do want to slow down. You should plan ahead for each of these phases before they arrive. Plan it right and you can be like the Bells. "Leaving full-time work and keeping active gives you an opportunity to pursue things that you can only dream about," Kaaren Bell says. "I used to say, 'I wish I had time to do this and that.' Now I do."

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