Boomers bound for boomtowns
Anne Marie McQueen
Last Updated: September 01. 2008 10:11PM UAE / September 1. 2008 6:11PM GMT
John Downey, 59, never dreamt he would fly commercially again when he retired from British Airways four years ago. For six months, he indulged his passion for sailing. Then someone recommended a job in Abu Dhabi, helping to set up a Boeing 777 fleet for the fledgling Etihad Airways.
Before long, Mr Downey had upended his retirement plan. He and his wife, Pauline, 58, began to plot what they would call their “Arabian adventure”.
“We put everything in storage, rented out the house and came out here to start all over again,” says Mr Downey, now the head of Etihad’s corporate safety programme.
The country’s vast professional expatriate community may commonly be thought of as people in their 20s, 30s and 40s who move here for a new experience, a bump in their careers or just a few years of tax-free earning. But there is another demographic flocking to the Emirates: baby boomers, an influential group estimated at 450 million people worldwide, born in the years after the Second World War through to the early 1960s.
Boomers are searching for the same things as people decades younger, and they see age as no obstacle to another life experience.
“As long as we keep ourselves healthy and fit, there’s no reason to think, ‘Oh my God, we’re touching 60’,” says Pauline Downey, who retired from a career as a flight attendant six years ago. “I don’t feel that way at all.”
Dr Ralph Hawkins, a root canal specialist from California who teaches at the Boston University dental school in Dubai, is 56.
“I realise my age, but I still feel like I am 30 or something,” he says. “We are actually recruiting some people who are older than me.”
Carol Orsborn, an American author of 15 books for and about baby boomers, says these stories are not surprising.
“Retirement just isn’t sticking,” she says. “Eight out of 10 boomers say they wouldn’t retire – a combination of they can’t and they don’t want to.”
Longer lifespans and a worldwide financial downturn are forcing many people to keep working much longer than they had planned. But many who stop working find that retirement is not all they had dreamt about. Boomers do not have the skills to relax and “do little or nothing”, says Ms Orsborn.
“This is a generation that was raised on high achieving,” she says. “There are so many of us, we’ve been competing since we were five or six. We were seated alphabetically in school. Unless you were the one with your hand up in the air, you’d get lost.”
Research has found that people stay vital – cognitively and physically – the longer they work, says Ms Orsborn. Since travel is what boomers most want to do, working as expatriates makes sense.
“Working in an exotic place, or a different place, is an alternate way of getting at both the lust for adventure and education,” she says.
He quoted the 2006 Merrill Lynch New Retirement Survey, which polled more than 3,000 boomers and found that only 17 per cent said they intended to stop working for pay. Another survey, conducted by Dell Webb, showed that 59 per cent of boomers planned to move after quitting their primary careers.
For Mr Downey, the growth and possibility of the UAE’s aviation industry provided a direct contrast to the UK’s culture of “parked planes and redundancy packages”, and mandatory retirement at 55. Better yet, Etihad needed his experience.
“The opportunity to go back into management, the opportunity to start a fleet, to start an airline from the beginning, was tempting,” says Mr Downey. “It’s exciting to be able to pass on your experience to young people.”
Here, being older is appreciated, more so than in the West, says Dr Hawkins. “I think there is a sense that people of age have wisdom,” he says. “They have things they can offer.”
Mark Beer, the chairman of the British Business Group Dubai and Northern Emirates, established in 1987 to encourage the development of British business in the Emirates, says he has not detected a marked shift in the demographics of the group’s 1,300 members, but agrees that UAE companies place a high value on age and experience.
“It’s a balance between having a workforce that is young, energetic and innovative, which will drive knowledge creation and the small- to medium-enterprise sector, and the need for wisdom and a steady hand on the tiller to ensure everything is staying in the right direction,” Mr Beer says. “That is something the UAE has understood for many years.”
A survey of recruiting firms in the UAE showed that seven to 15 per cent of the people they placed in jobs were 50 or older. Recruiters say the number is not higher because people of that age are interested in the most senior positions. “The age translates into experience,” says Nazia Qureshi, a manager at Intuit Management Consultancy in Dubai.
The UAE has a lot of demand for technical, professional people who have significant experience in certain specialities, says John Macdonald, managing director of the Middle East for ORC Worldwide, a management consultancy. Although it can be more difficult for people older than 60 to obtain work visas, he says, “if you’ve got a special skill that is in demand and scarce, then age should not be an issue”.
The oil and gas sector in particular attracts people who have spent decades working in other parts of the world. “It’s not uncommon for people to retire and then embark on a secondary career as a specialist consultant or contractor within the industry,” Mr Macdonald says.
Many boomers see their options expand after their children have grown. Others have never had the opportunity to make such big changes.
Dr Hawkins always wanted to work abroad during the 18 years he ran a dentistry practice in California. He looked into different opportunities, with organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders.
However, they did not work out.
Then came the opportunity to teach his speciality in Dubai. Since arriving in January, Dr Hawkins has visited every emirate but Fujairah and has experienced desert safaris and night-time crab hunting.
“It’s everything I wanted,” he says. “There is a need, almost, inside of me that’s satisfied.”
Dr Byron Novosad, 53, teaches in the periodontics faculty at Boston University’s dental school in Dubai. He retired from a group dental practice in Houston, Texas, four years ago. He went back to work to teach at the University of Texas for a year before moving to Dubai in July.
One of his main goals is to find investment opportunities in the UAE – he was involved in venture capital back home – and to learn more about a region he has long read and heard about.
“It was such an opportunity to come here and do something I loved anyway,” says Dr Novosad.
Peggy Goddard had spent her working life in health care administration – she was a chief nursing officer at a hospital in Canada – when she accepted a teaching job at the University of Sharjah. It was 2001, she was in her 50s, and the chance to visit another country was too much to pass up.
“I am not always adventuresome, but this seemed safe, easy and financially manageable,” she says.
She stayed for two years, returning to Canada for the birth of her first grandchild.
Meeting and getting to know two colleagues from Iraq and a Bedouin family, as well as gaining a new perspective on the world, were highlights of her Sharjah experience.
“I now understand how many similarities there are among people,” Ms Goddard says.
Then there is the year-round sailing in Abu Dhabi’s warm coastal waters, which Mr Downey has grown partial to. His wife has found kindred spirits in the local reiki community. The couple have already decided to make Australia their next stop after Abu Dhabi. Etihad recently raised the retirement age for pilots to 65, so that, says Mr Downey, is “when I’ve got to go”.
But for now, he is no hurry to leave the place that changed everything.
“It’s given me a new lease of life,” he says.