Retiring Minds Ought to Know

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Jesse Kuhn /

If you’re over 60 years old and reading this post, it’s probably too late. Good for you if you’re under 30. You’ve got a better chance if you’re younger.

Age discrimination? No. The end of retirement as we know it–an emerging unpleasant reality that will reshape the quality of life and standard of living for billions. Start dealing with it. Now.

If you are a knowledge worker, you will not be retiring at 65. Period. Even if you are in a protected public union with cosseted pension funds, you are at extraordinary risk. Just ask the Greeks, the Californians, or the Japanese. This is a global phenomenon. Demographics and structural deficits don’t lie. Unless the global economy comes roaring back in ways that stimulate sustainable growth, even the most talented professionals can expect to work for at least an additional five years.

Of course, with stimulating careers, good health, and longer life spans, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it is surely not what most midcareer professionals have planned. (Indeed, there’s no shortage of optimists who still expect to enjoy the fruits of early retirement.) Forget the “saving for retirement” shibboleths. Strategically addressing those 60 (or more) additional months on the job may be your most significant long-range planning investment.

The simple reality is that retirement planning as we know it is obsolete. Take 15 hard minutes to ruthlessly reassess the reality of the “new” final years of your future career. The finish line has become elusive; the goalposts have been pushed back. Based on your current skills and competences, what do you think your workday will look like when you’re 70? Are you comfortable with the probability that you will be managing employees younger than your grandchildren? Temperamentally, do you think you’ll add more value as a mentor, a partner, or a part-timer? More importantly, what will your (much) younger boss think?

Do you honestly believe that, when you have to work five more years than you anticipated, you can get away with not being more facile, adept, and productive with emerging technologies? The inevitable aging of the (for now) wealthier Western economies guarantees a surge of innovative devices compatible with slower fingers and tired eyes. You will, of course, be taking web-enabled professional/technical development courses at 58 or 62, or you will be fired for cause.

Whatever your 70-year-old workday scenarios may be, what new or novel skills or experiences will they demand? Will they demand more travel, or less? More time immersed in digital environments, or less? More interactions with people within a decade of your age, or fewer? Are there personal or professional development initiatives you should be undertaking now precisely because those five years present opportunities that the earlier deadlines don’t?

Focus the most important slice of your 15-minute meditation on role models. Who are the 70-year-olds whose presence, energy, and effectiveness might profitably serve as benchmarks for your own? Who are two 75-year-olds whom you would professionally emulate? Write down their names. I know my two and why I picked them. But why have you chosen yours? What do your choices say about the kind of person you want to be at the end of your professional life?

To be sure, there’s no shortage of 70- and even 80-year-olds for whom advancing age has not been an obstacle to productivity and professionalism. But the braver and bolder way to interpret this challenge is recognizing that, just as you can’t run or swim as fast as your 25-year-old self, your 70-year-old self will have to manage and add professional value differently than you did at 40 or 50.

You don’t have to know–you can’t possibly know–the answers to all the questions right now. But it’s not too early to ask them and to select role models. (You’ll be fascinated to see how your selections evolve as you age.) The future of “five more” doesn’t quite make a mockery of the clichéd “Have you saved enough for retirement?” and “What will you do in retirement?” questions dominating most end-of-career discussions. Make no mistake: Deciding how to invest in enhancing your career requires different assessments when you add five years to the end of it. The changing structural economics of retirement almost completely overturn the conventional cost/benefit calculations for investing in career development and training.

Are those extra five years being tacked onto an appreciating or a depreciating asset? Even adjusting for age discrimination lawsuits and legislation, how will organizations accommodate a psychographic, demographic, and economic shift every bit as profound as the rise of women in the workplace?

The fact remains that older professionals and managers tend to be the most expensive items on the payroll. You know this. What on earth justifies the value of keeping them–or you–for five more years? Alternately, are those additional years spent in the murky realms of partial, part-time, or contingent employ with nervous 60-year-olds working almost as hard and creatively for two-thirds or three-quarters of their previous compensation? How about half?

The pace of change in the most vibrant postindustrial sectors is such that the technical expertise of one’s 40s has decayed into anachronistic obsolescence by one’s 50s. Knowledge may be power, but it is also perishable. Yesterday’s hot markup language is tomorrow’s Sanskrit; last decade’s breakthrough medical procedure is next year’s malpractice. The cliché distinction between “five years’ experience” and “a year’s worth of experience five times” has seldom been more apt or more bitter. Then again, cultivating and harvesting a socioprofessional network for five more years can yield disproportionate value.

Perhaps, as some have suggested, we’ll see an explosion of “silver entrepreneurship” or “e-lancing,” as experienced practitioners launch start-ups or consulting shops. The dynamics of internal competition, promotion, and mentoring will be revolutionized if the median age skews up and 60-year-old executives who had planned to vanish into the Bermuda triangle of retirement in five years now push hard to stay for ten. If market forces and healthier lifestyles make 65 the new 50, then people in their 40s or 50s had better revisit their most fundamental assumptions about what investing in their career should mean. When you know that being on the job five additional years is inevitable, you have to have the courage and character to ask: How can I make them the most pleasant and professionally productive of my life?

Michael Schrage, a research fellow at MIT Sloan School of Management’s Center for Digital Business, is the author of Serious Play and of a provocative blog for Harvard Business Review. Excerpted from Schrage’s June 16, 2010, post.

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