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Longer, better, happier: Unveiling the surprising key to longevity in retirement

By Andrew Hallam - March 14, 2023

In 2005, I was teaching a high school English class when a student, who obviously didn’t want to talk about Shakespeare, dragged me off-topic.

He asked, “Is there anything you wish you could do, but haven’t done yet?”

I took the bait… much to his delight.

“I would like to meet Warren Buffett and Muhammad Ali,” I said.

One of my students raised her hand and said, “Mr. Hallam, my mum has a high-level position with JP Morgan & Chase. She has always wanted to meet Warren Buffett. But she hasn’t been able to. If she can’t meet him, I don’t think you will.”

I wanted to respect that student, while noting an important lesson.

I said we’re often afraid to try new things.

We fear failure, so when we fail at something, we’re often afraid to try again.

And sometimes, other people say we won’t succeed at something because they, or someone they know, tried the same thing and failed.

Listening to such advice can be like putting our past failures, and the failures of others, into our future.

Quoting one of my favourite sports metaphors I said, “We miss 100 percent of the shots we don’t take.”

Then I had an idea.

With the student’s help, I drafted a letter to Warren Buffett.

Of course, it wasn’t part of the curriculum.

But I figured it related to life and (at least in part) an English class.

We started with a catchy lead.

We also used humour, while trying to confirm I wasn’t crazy (that last part is open to debate).

“I would like to come to Berkshire Hathaway’s annual general meeting,” I wrote, “But there aren’t any hostels in Omaha, and hotels are expensive, so I was wondering if I could sleep on your sofa or in your garage.”

I once read that his wife bought bulk quantities of Buffett’s favourite drink, Cherry Coke, at Costco, so I joked about slipping my camping mat in his garage between the stacks of Coke and Buffett’s lawn mower.

When we finished the draft I copied it on a postcard and mailed it to Buffett’s business address in Omaha, Nebraska.

Some of my students laughed and called me crazy.

But I figured, “Why not try?”

At the time, Warren Buffett was 75 years old.

I didn’t know how much longer he would continue to work.

If he retired or were called to his Ultimate Reward, I might never meet him.

I figured, even this long shot could be a decent lesson for the kids.

It turns out Warren Buffett loved the postcard.

He sent a copy to his friend at The Wall Street Journal.

They published a story titled, “Warren Buffett’s Bed & Breakfast.”

CNBC interviewed me in Omaha.

And although I didn’t really sleep in Buffett’s garage, I joked about the postcard in person with Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger and their good friend, Bill Gates.

I was wrong, however, to think that Warren Buffett would soon retire.

Fifteen years later, at 90 years of age, he was still the Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway.

Plenty of people have a tough time making sense of this.

After all, Warren Buffett had several million dollars by his mid-30s.

By 2020, he had almost $90 billion.

Why wouldn’t he just retire and enjoy The Life of Riley?

I’ll admit, I wondered the same thing for years.

But I’ve since learned that conventional retirement might be over-rated.

I’m not suggesting you die at your desk.

That’s bat-poop crazy, especially if you hate your job.

But research suggests a flexible view of retirement might beat retiring early.

Could a job extend your life?

Shigeaki Hinohara, a Japanese physician, was chairman emeritus of St. Luke’s International University and honorary president of St. Luke’s International Hospital.

He said it’s healthier for people to work long past the age of sixty-five.

Hinohara died when he was 105 years old, and he was still working with patients just a few months before his death.

In fact, his date book included five more years of appointments.

Most people, in western culture, aspire to retire.

But it’s different in Japan.

In 2017 a survey revealed that 43 percent of Japanese workers plan to keep working after they reach the traditional retirement age.

And most of those people aren’t doing it for the money.

Part-time work keeps them moving.

It keeps them engaged with younger people.

Often, they find new employment at places like the Silver Human Resources Center in Matsudo.

It’s one of more than 1,600 senior employment agencies in Japan.

Available work is divided into several categories.

It includes indoor and outdoor work like cleaning parks, weeding and hanging posters.

In Japan, an old man raking leaves in a park might be a multi-millionaire.

Other jobs include managing bicycle parking lots, as well as office reception work or general building maintenance.

Japanese longevity is legendary.

On average, women live 87.45 years.

The men live an average of 81.41 years.

Americans and the British typically retire at a younger age.

But they don’t live as long as the Japanese.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Services, American women live to an average of 81.1 years.

American men live an average of 76.1 years.

British men live an average of 79 years.

British women typically live almost four years longer.

But the Japanese have them beat.

In part, we could credit Japan’s healthier diet for their longevity.

But the Japanese tendency to continue working longer might play a role as well.

After all, older Americans who continue to work past the traditional retirement age live longer too.

In a study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, researchers found that people who worked even just one year past traditional retirement age had a 9 percent to 11 percent lower risk of dying over the 18-year study, regardless of their initial health.

A study of 83,000 adults published in the CDC journal, Preventing Chronic Disease, found that people who continued working past the age of 65 were three times more likely to be in good health, compared to those who retired earlier.

And older people who continue working also have lower odds of suffering from dementia.

Genetics play a role, of course.

But our brains are like a muscle.

We either use it or we lose it.

That might be one of the reasons Warren Buffett remains so sharp.

He continues to run Berkshire Hathaway at 92 years of age.

Even more extraordinary, the company’s co-chairman, Charlie Munger, is seven years older.

He turned 99 years old on New Year’s Day, 2023.

Perhaps that’s why Buffett adopted one of Munger’s mantras: “All I want to know is where I’m going to die so I’ll never go there.”


This is an excerpt from Andrew Hallam’s 2022 book, Balance: How to Invest and Spend for Happiness, Health and Wealth New call-to-action

Andrew Hallam is the best-selling author of Millionaire Expat (3rd edition), Balance, and Millionaire Teacher.