The good life: City boss quits for charity work

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From a plush City office, said The Sun, to mud huts and grinding poverty in deepest Africa. "Not exactly," laughed Richard Harvey who, at the age of 56, is to step down as chief executive of Britain's largest insurer, Aviva, after almost a decade in the top job, and head off for the world's poorest continent to see what he can do to help there. "Thirty years of sitting behind a desk has softened me too much to live in a mud hut without water or electricity. But I am keen to see what I can do."

He has called it "the gap year I never had" and Mr Harvey is not alone in taking it much later in life than is traditional. Research from Mintel suggests that as many as 200,000 people over 55 now take gap years before they retire - a figure fast catching up with the 230,000 young people who take a year out before or after university.

In Mr Harvey's case the inspiration was his daughter Jenny who, four years ago, spent nine months in Uganda working on an Aids project. "I'd been in Africa some years before, in Zimbabwe on safari, and in Botswana on holiday. But then we went for a week at the school where she was based. It was extremely remote and very basic, without water or electricity, in a mud hut." He was shocked by the conditions in which ordinary Africans live.

"I don't think I'll be able to do anything so rigorous but the plan is to go to Africa later in the year to work on a couple of projects for around three to four months each. I hope I'll be able to make a modest contribution but basically it will be about acquiring a real and improved understanding of the problems, difficulties and challenges faced by Africa."

The forces driving Mr Harvey are increasingly common, says Sophie Rowan, an occupational psychologist who runs a career-change consultancy called Pinpoint. "The world of work has changed," she says. "Twenty years ago people had just one career; today they change on average 2.3 times in their lifetime."

People today expect a lot more from their job, she says. "They insist it should be well paid, interesting and fulfilling. But jobs expect more from people too. Despite all the European working directives, the average professional now works 55 to 60 hours a week. They don't have a good work-life balance. They can't spend enough time with their family. They can't take on voluntary work. So they reach a point where they want a dramatic change."

Those who feel trapped in their high earnings go to organisations like Pinpoint for stress-management. But the mid-life career switch is coming earlier and earlier. "There are lots of people in their early thirties who have worked for a decade and reached saturation point," Ms Rowan says. "Those who have built up savings, or equity in their house, are taking a year off to retrain as an acupuncturist or whatever."

Those who are older - with the mortgage paid and the children finished university - are retiring early. "Many just play golf three times a week," she says. "But some want to use their retirement in a meaningful way."

So much so that Voluntary Service Overseas says the average age of its volunteers is 40, with 20 per cent now over the age of 50. The agency has had to impose an upper age limit of 75.

There is no doubt that Mr Harvey can afford a year off. Last year he earned £1.9m. His annual pension will be more than £500,000. He has share options of £2.7m and an expensive house in Chelsea. Having said that, he has a track-record of altruism; he is said to give away a lot of his salary and raised £50,000 for breast cancer research after his wife, Kay, survived the disease. Kay, who has just qualified to teach English as a foreign language will join him in Africa.

But he is reticent about all that: "I never comment on what I do with my money," he says, and similarly plays down reports that his Africa plans grow out of his religious beliefs. "We're both long-standing Christians. Your faith is obviously integral to how you see the world but I'm reluctant to talk about it. It could sound grandiose."

Likewise he is keen not to pre-judge what he will be able to do in Africa. "I'm a passable motor mechanic," he says. "I'm looking forward to rolling up my sleeves and helping practically. I'd like to get back to the things that I also enjoyed when I was younger, mechanical and building skills."

But the sleeve-rolling will be just the first phase, while he is learning about Africa. Phase two might well be something that employs his business and management skills, like offering to help an African government sort out why its civil servants can't get change to happen. "But I need to do the nitty-gritty first. I've done virtually every job within the insurance industry. To enter at the top end would be wrong."

He has also drawn on the experience of Tidjane Thiam, who leads Aviva's European operations, was born and raised in Ivory Coast and was a member of Tony Blair's Commission for Africa. "I would hope I'll have those kind of skills to offer," he says. "If not I've been wasting my time for the past 35 years."

Working on the macro end of things, he says, is something he might end up doing from London. But before that, he grins, Africa beckons. "Now is the right time for me to set out on my next adventure while I have the energy and desire to make a difference."

From the boardroom to Burma's Buddhist trail

By Arifa Akbar

Until a few weeks ago, Richard Dixey helmed the pharmaceuticals company he co-founded 14 years ago - he holds the record as the longest-serving biotech CEO. But next month he swaps the boardroom for a nine-month journey taking his family across India, Burma, Thailand and Sri Lanka to meet Buddhist monks.

Mr Dixey, 54, chief executive of Phytopharm, which specialises in products generated from plant extracts, wants to focus on his interest in Buddhism, which started asa teenager. "When I met my wife in 2000, who is half Tibetan, it cemented my interest," he said.

His wife, Wangmo, who worked in the City when she met Mr Dixey, has set up a company called The Light of Buddha Dharma Foundation International (LBDFI), which aims to reinvigorate the Buddhist tradition in India, where it was founded.

Mr Dixey, who had begun helping his wife with the foundation, which has a base in India, America and now in Britain, said he felt it was right to leave work as his passion for his "outside interest" grew.

"I was conscious that I needed to hand over the reigns at Phytopharm took us a while to find the right people for the new management team," he said.

Mr Dixey will begin his travels with his wife and children, a daughter, aged four, and a son, aged two, as well as their nanny, next month.