Don’t read this unless you’re over 55 years old. Or expect to be over 55 someday. Or work for or with someone over 55. Or know anyone over 55.
Full disclosure: I’m 58 years old. I know I’m not middle-aged any more. I mean, how many 116-year-olds work in your office? But I’m not dead yet either. Or retired. Or even near retirement. I expect to work another ten to twelve years.
That’s not unusual these days. Many of my friends and colleagues are in the 55-65 age range, some closer to 70. Many of us want to keep working. Many of us frankly think we probably have to work until around 70, given the nature of markets and investments these days. So we’re pretty interested in the sustainability of our careers.
(There’s also an entire cottage industry of studies, articles and blogs debating whether retirement shortens or extends your life span. I’ve listed some below in case you’re morbidly interested.)
We don’t think of ourselves as particularly old either. Obviously old is a relative term. To my children I’ve been old for years. To my undergraduate students at Northwestern, I’m positively ancient. (And I occasionally play to that, regaling them with stories of getting through college with typewriters with no delete key, phones with rotary dials, and the Vietnam-era draft.). But old as in done, over, finished, tired? No way. And on days when I need perspective I remember that my 90-year-old father is active, on email, and subscribed successfully to this blog.
So what are we? We’re in neither middle nor old age but caught in between. So are we “M-Old”? As in moldy, left in the fridge a little too long, a little over-ripe?
The M-Old challenge
One challenge is that we have no model or even common name for this 15-year work stretch from age 55 to 70. It’s not “pre-retirement” – that sounds like pre-boarding at the airport, for those who need extra time to get down the jet-way. The old song may say “the human name doesn’t mean [much] to a tree” but the human name does matter to humans. If we don’t have a name for something, it doesn’t really exist.
Our organizations present their own challenges. They don’t know what to do with us. They also may not know what to do without us. For example, many companies expect 30-50% of their experienced EHS professionals to retire in the next 10 years. That creates a huge gap in knowledge and skill. Keeping the same people in place doing the same thing will be difficult and would only postpone the problem by a few years. But designing other roles to retain and transfer knowledge doesn’t fit most organizations’ norms. If our organizations aren’t providing these models, are we using our experience and perspective to help create them ourselves? Or are we waiting to be forced out?
We also may be our own challenge. We grew up in the peak period of retirement expectations. Neither our parents nor our children grew up with an expectation of retiring at 62 and playing happily for the next 30 years. We did. So we put those expectations on ourselves and our peers. We assume (or fear) this is a time of slowing down, not raising our game. As one good friend in the same age range (and between jobs at the time) asked me last week: “Would we hire us?”
Or are we potentially gold?
For many of us, this may be the most productive period of our work life. We have tons of experience. We have perspective: for many issues, we’ve seen it, done it, probably failed at it a few times ourselves. We have curiosity: we’ve been around long enough to see how fast change can happen and how being mentally agile is at least as important as being prescient, and more likely too.
We have a unique opportunity. We are likely to be liberated from hierarchical organizational ambitions (by choice or otherwise). By this stage in many companies, you’ve either hit the top ranks – or bluntly you never will. As I told my CEO when shifting out of top management: “I still have huge ambition. But it’s not hierarchical. I’ve done that. I’d be delighted to never do another budget or performance review. I do want to be recognized and respected for what I can think and do, not for a title or the size of my staff.” That frees us up to consult, mentor and coach, without being seen as competitors or threats.
We haven’t lost much in terms of energy. Sure, many of us have difficult family challenges from aging parents, kids who came back home, and our own health at times. But is that very different from the unyielding time demands of soccer practice, being home for birthdays, and all the teen trauma that inevitably erupted at the wrong time when we were on the wrong continent?
I’ve been fortunate to have friends, mentors and neighbors who have shown me examples of creating that 55-70 stage, not waiting for it to fall in their lap. They taught me the art of reinvention. They have moved into Board roles, teaching, mentoring. They are experimenting with more innovative public-private approaches to the problems they’ve wrestled with for years. They are finding ways to get more satisfaction by focusing on what they can do rather than what they can be. So why isn’t this more common?
If we don’t see the opportunity, if we don’t realize we can be gold, we can’t blame others too much for assuming we’re mold.
Note: The Confusing Literature on Retirement and Mortality
Many articles cite and debate a 2005 study of thousands of Shell Oil employees. That study actually seems to disprove a negative. It challenges assumptions that early retirement led to longer life spans; it doesn’t actually indicate that early retirement leads to shorter life spans.
A Freakonomics web post last year titled “Retirement Kills” cited a study called “Fatal attraction? Access to early retirement and mortality”. However, that study seems to reach a different conclusion than the headlines suggest:
“Our empirical results suggest that retirement following an involuntary job loss is likely to cause excess mortality among blue-collar males, while retirement after a voluntary quit does not.”
Which begs the question of just how voluntary job loss is if you feel forced out but not actually let go.
Interestingly, this debate has gone on as long as I’ve been alive – literally. I found an article from the year of my birth on Factors in Interpreting Mortality After Retirement in the Journal of the American Statistical Association.
[Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of ERM, its partners or clients – or anyone else 55-70 years old.]