Science - December 17, 2014


Rob Ramaker

Retirement. Most people look forward to it. Total freedom, no more obligations. Plenty of time for all those things you never got around to. But what happens if your work is your biggest hobby? And if you are not at all ready to stop? Then you carry on. Paid or not, as the case may be.

You come across them here and there around Wageningen UR. The elderly staff member. A distinguished face, and clearly over 65. People like ecologist Pieter Slim, who is still going strong in paid employment at Alterra. Or people with the staying power of Dick Peters, 82 and still working. It is true that he has been forced to work from home this year, thanks to a gammy knee. But as long as his health allows it, he won’t con- sider stopping. On these pages, four Wageningeners who have ignored retirement age talk about what keeps them going. Head of HRM Tineke Tromp says Wageningen UR is ‘extremely cautious’ in its response to requests to carry on working beyond pensionable age. The main reason for this is the wish to keep fresh blood coming in. ‘Particu- larly in view of how long most staff have worked here, the policy is geared to keeping people moving on, and using the space that is freed up for sitting staff and new staff coming in from outside.’


It is possible to carry on working beyond retirement age, but only if it is clearly to the organization’s advantage. Tromp: ‘Examples would be finishing off a specific job or handing over specific expertise or a network.’ People who carry on working are not on the books of Wageningen UR, but are hired through P-flex, the payroll branch of job agency Randstad. ‘That makes it clear that there is a new situation,’ explains Tromp. The person is also given a well-defined job description, because ‘it needs to be clear that it is not just an extension of your old job.’ As a result there are very few people who carry on working on a paid basis. Asking around in the Science Groups only turns up 10 paid over-65s, although not all the groups have the figures at the ready. Rather more people continue on a voluntary basis as guest workers, sometimes working sev- eral days a week into old age. There are thought to be about 100 of these long-distance runners around.

They are still a fairly rare species, but that may be about to change. The Dutch government wants to make it easier for people to carry on working beyond retirement. Pro- posed legislation for this has been tabled in the lower house of parliament. The new rules will apply from 2016 at the earliest.

‘I can keep going a bit longer’

Research is ‘incredibly fascinating’, says Dick Peters (82). And if you get to do such nice work, why would you stop? So when the associate professor of Virology turned 65, he carried on working. Unpaid, because he has a generous pension. ‘I never said goodbye. If you do that people keep on asking what you are doing here.’ To Peters, carrying on working means carrying on work- ing, not just pottering about in the lab. ‘If you carry on, you should do so fulltime.’ He does knock off early some- times but he doesn’t take days off. As soon as you start doing that, you start saying goodbye. So Peters’ name still features in the scientific literature. In 2012 he published an article on the way a plant virus is spread by birds. To do this, he had to demonstrate the presence of viruses, often in samples from abroad: Greece, Mali and Sri Lanka. After retirement he even supervised a few PhD candidates. He has never really encountered any obstacles. His group leader was very happy for him to carry on, and even though the department’s research was going in a completely different direction, his colleagues were pleased to be able to consult him. There was only an occasional show of envy or a joke about the retirement party that people were still waiting for. Since last January Peters has been forced to work from home. His knee was bothering him too much, and he has now had an operation. The physiotherapist warns of a four to five month rehabilitation period. He ‘can’t wait’ to pick up a pipette again. For the time being, he has started compiling a virus database. He logs into the library at home and for non-digitalized literature his wife takes him to the campus. His current ambition is to finish off this project, and after that he has no clear plans. ‘But my health is still good. I can keep going a bit longer.’

‘I may well be publishing more now than before retirement’

Frans Breteler (82), former associate professor of Plant Taxonomy, popped into the Forum last week. He and another retired colleague recently discovered a new plant genus, on which he will publish an article shortly. He was invited to come and tell students the story of his discov- ery. ‘The new generation is mainly working at the molecu- lar level and they were very interested to hear how a classical botanist goes about things,’ he notes with satis- faction.

Botanist Breteler specializes in African plants, especially from Gabon. He is currently finishing off several publica- tions in order to start in 2015 on a contribution to a book about the flora of Gabon. ‘Since I retired I may well have published more than before. After all, I no longer have management or teaching work to do,’ says Breteler. ‘I now publish about four articles a year and I have made 20 trips to Africa.’

After retiring in 1997, Breteler carried on working whole days in herbarium vadense plant collection in Wagenin- gen. ‘Botany is a fascinating subject,’ says Breteler about what drives him. ‘It is detective work and you don’t need much to be able to do it. The plants get sent in to the institute anyway, and then all you need is a microscope.’ Only last January was he forced against his will to stop, when it was decided that the collection of dried plants would be moved to the natural history museum in Leiden. Since then he is no longer a regular visitor on campus. He does make occasional visits to the plant collections in Leiden and Brussels, though, where he is ‘correspondent’ and ‘guest worker’ respectively. On such days he likes to carpool with other emeritus professors. Working on past retirement is quite usual among botanists: Breteler guesses that 20 percent of botanical papers are written by pensioners. They have a tremendous store of experi- ence and a lot of time and love for their subject. ‘My age will start playing a role of course but as long as I stay healthy I see no reason to stop.’

‘If necessary I can still keep up with the best of them’

Ecologist Pieter Slim (68) still cycles from Bennekom to his work at Alterra every day. And he still enjoys it. To be honest, when he reached 65 three years ago he hated the thought of stopping. He had no intention of just sweeping up leaves like the other pensioners on his street. The thought appalls him. ‘It was strange for me to stop work- ing so suddenly and abruptly. There was still so much to do, the work was still interesting and there were still all kinds of possibilities. At Alterra you still have an amazing freedom to do interesting things. As long as you can stand on your own two feet, funding-wise.’ So he talked to his head of department about the possibilities for going on working two years before reaching retirement age. There was a possibility in another department of Alterra, on a payroll basis and no longer as an employee of Wageningen UR. He is very satisfied with how it has gone. ‘But it is a bit odd, of course. I do the same work as I did before, I am project leader, do acquisition, bring contracts in and maintain contacts with various compa- nies, but I am not on Alterra’s payroll. I don’t get assessed, I can’t go on the employees’ council and I am not allowed to fill in the staff survey.’ His contract has been renewed every year, much to Alterra’s benefit. ‘My production rate hasn’t gone down. On the contrary, I don’t think I’ve done badly. My successor inherits enough work to last until 2018.’

Successor? Yes: at the end of this year Slim is going to  cut down and become a guest worker. ‘Physically I am not worn out yet. I can still do field work. If I have to, I can keep up with the best of them, but you have to stop at some point.’ Or phase out, at least. He will still be cycling to the campus next year. He just won’t be paid anymore. ‘And I won’t be taking on new things. But there are at least four articles that need finishing off.’

‘So much data stays in notebooks’

The bookcases in his home in Amerongen are full of  works on psychology, philosophy, anthropology and his- tory. But Bram Mabelis (75), former ecologist at Alterra, doesn’t get around to reading them. Work comes first. In the end he prefers to write articles for journals, academic or otherwise. Call it a sense of duty or responsibility. Ten years after retiring, Mabelis still sets off for Alterra every Monday morning. There is still so much data that was collected in the past, and which will be lost if he does not process it. Old data, yes, but very valuable. ‘Among sci- entists, so much data stay in notebooks. All that gets lost when people die. That is a shame.’

‘But I enjoy it too, you know,’ he adds quickly. And the work is important. Mabelis recently heard from Warsaw that a deputy mayor is being appointed there to work specifically on green space in the city. He sees this as the result of his critical Polish articles, lectures and endless

discussions with civil servants about green spaces in Warsaw. Along with his sense of duty, this kind of social impact is a big part of what drives him. He has no thoughts of stopping yet. There is still too much data to publish. He did get an email from Alterra telling him his WUR account would be cancelled from 1 January. But it turned out to be an automated message. He has no need to worry. They don’t want to get rid of him yet. The email message could be seen as rather typical of the way Alterra treats guest staff. ‘You might expect a head of department to ask once a year what you are working on, what you have done, and what your future plans are. On that basis you can decide whether to stop an account or not. But it doesn’t happen. They don’t mind what I do as long as it doesn’t cost any money. Or at least, not more than the cost of an account.’