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Were you to read the recent media coverage of UK pension reform, you’d be forgiven for thinking those approaching retirement are planning a party.

In the Observer, various travel companies were talking excitedly about helping older people to ‘cash pensions in’ before retirement has even started. Channel 4 was worried about survey results suggesting that older people will be tempted by new options for holidays and other extravagances, regardless of how they’ll live afterwards. A press release from one retirement home provider ran with the headline that those over 60 are likely to ‘spend, spend, spend’.

So are those approaching retirement in the UK really planning to live it up, blow all their cash on holidays, and to hell with the consequences?

Baby boomers and bucket lists
These stories tap into a wider unease about what the ‘baby boomers’ will do after retirement. Regarded as the ‘lucky generation’ that was raised in times of comparative post war affluence, their consumption plans have already been talked about with some concern. Others have worried about them bringing new ideas about enjoyable leisure after retirement that could be quite costly.

It is easy to picture the boomers eagerly composing ‘bucket lists’ of things to do and places to see as they now move into their retirement years. In some respects, why shouldn’t they if this leads to more personal fulfilment? However, if they are travelling more than ever, there will also be challenges for us all.

On the one hand, there are concerns about who will pick up the care bills after the money runs out when we people are living longer now than ever before. On the other, there is a potential legacy of carbon emissions and climate insecurity, for their children and grandchildren alike.

How trends happen
So will we really see a perfect storm of shattered pension pots, globe trotting retirees and greenhouse gas emissions?

Whether this will come to pass remains to be seen. But it is too simplistic to paint all impending retirees as inevitably succumbing to these temptations.

There are many factors that shape the leisure travel of our older people, and a single policy change is unlikely to trump them all.  Habits and preferences built up over a lifetime, emotional connections to people and places, caring and volunteering commitments at home – though less attention grabbing, these will all exert an influence over future retirement travel.

We should also be mindful of how predictions can influence people. If the media seems to be anticipating a travel spending spree, how is that received by actual retirees and in what ways does it affect what they do? Could the hype be fuelling the fire, contributing to new senses of what is ‘normal’ travel after retirement?

We should also be cautious about some of these surveys. If asked whether you want to make the most of pension reform you might immediately say yes – why wouldn’t you? But if asked about what you’ll be doing in the next few years with your holidays and why, recent policy changes might not feature at all.

Pointing out that older people might not always be that responsive to new pension policies doesn’t make for much of a headline. But there is a bigger story to tell with regard to how we’ll come to travel after retirement in both the immediate future and beyond.

And there is surely more to it than the cashing in of pensions.

Russell Hitchings, UCL, Rosie Day, University of Birmingham and Sue Venn, UCL