Retirement Comes of Age

31 March 2009

Executives are increasingly choosing to work beyond retirement, often on a part-time or consultancy basis. Mark Stuart, head of research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing, examines how a ‘retirement career’ can benefit an executive’s wellbeing while providing invaluable experience to younger colleagues

The developed world is seeing a growth in its ‘grey’ population. Thanks to better medical procedures and healthier lifestyles, people are living longer, while at the same time birth rates are falling.

The potential social effect of this demographic shift could prove considerable. In the US, for example, there are currently some 78 million baby boomers (defined as people born between 1946 and 1964), and as they reach retirement age, the strain on health insurance and pensions funds could start to become a crisis.

In his book The Culture of the New Capitalism, distinguished sociologist Richard Sennett has described a future of "spectres of uselessness", where swathes of the population – even highly educated and knowledgeable sectors of society – have no role to fulfil, while the young are burdened with taxes to support this growing elderly demographic.

While this might not seem like an issue for senior management, a reduced workforce will bring into question the need for the amount of executives. Contrary to Sennett’s fears, it is possible to prevent such a doom-laden scenario occurring. One of the solutions is that the baby boomer generation is keen to carry on working beyond the retirement schedule of their predecessors.

Between work and leisure

Part of this enthusiasm for working longer comes from the flexibility offered by technology, especially in terms of creating a work-life balance, which makes a second career both attractive and feasible.

"When technology overcomes distance, the knowledge, skills and experience that older workers offer can be tapped into and communicated without the need to be in a particular location."

Technology, rather than being a disabler that will lead to Sennett’s scenario, is actually the means to help older people work longer in effective careers, putting them in control of where they work and how many hours they put in.

The role of the internet, together with ongoing improvements in video technology, means that people can continue their careers into their 60s, 70s and beyond by working partly, if not entirely, from home. The physical demands of having to come into an office each day are what used to prevent many people from being able to structure longer careers for themselves.

When technology overcomes distance, the knowledge, skills and experience that older workers offer can be tapped into and communicated without the need to be in a particular location, at least not every day.

Videoconferencing, for example, is reaching the stage of real-time interaction and in the near future it is reasonable to suppose that meeting by video will be as accessible as talking over the phone. Also, in a time when we urgently need to reduce the carbon emissions from air travel, an era when meetings can be held and deals done by video link, instead of travelling to be face to face, will be necessary as well as convenient. Working part-time, or remotely, for the most part and coming into the office one or two days a week is likely to become a normal part of working life in coming years.

Something to offer

According to Merrill Lynch, as many as three-quarters of baby boomers have no intention of fully retiring. Its most recent study into employee attitudes towards retirement, the Merrill Lynch New Retirement Study, outlines how many retired people are still working in some capacity, with the average tenure of this ‘retirement career’ being over nine years, and the average age at which they stop working being over 70. Almost half of those questioned who planned to work past official retirement age said they had no intention of retiring at all.

Michael Falcon, head of the retirement group at Merrill Lynch, says that "more than half said they would like to change their line of work, and have already taken steps to plan for this new career by attending classes or training sessions".

The reasons for wanting to continue work are not always obvious. While financial and health insurance concerns are a significant motivating factor, the main reasons respondents gave for wanting to work after retirement were to stay mentally alert and physically active. Working longer also offers the chance to give something back to society, by getting involved with charities, environmental projects, not-profit organisations, or the voluntary sector.

Teaching and mentoring are two further areas many retired people are considering, as there is a perfect fit between sharing knowledge and experience with younger people, and the fact that part-time teaching is a profession where, in many cases, it is possible for mentors to negotiate their working hours.

Life lessons

For executives who want to continue their careers and ensure they stay relevant, it is important they keep training and maintain up-to-date knowledge in a constantly changing work sector.

Training need not be seen as something you only do when you take on a new job, or identify a need for a new skill. Instead, training should be seen as a natural and ongoing process, with relevance to both work and home life. Besides learning from other people or through the media, the internet offers a huge range of opportunities to acquire skills and broaden knowledge.

"Working longer also offers the chance to give something back to society."

Many of the people wanting to extend their careers began them in an era when a corporate job for life was a realistic possibility, if not the norm. That time has gone, and most workers beginning their careers today are likely to work for numerous companies during their lifetime.

For the older worker, this means ensuring your knowledge is kept current with developments in the field, whether in terms of technological, political, environmental or legal changes to the type of work you are engaged in.

Taking responsibility for your own training in this way – by taking an adult learning course, learning online, asking questions of peers and contacts, or just reading the right books – is how you keep up-to-date and make yourself attractive to an employer.

In return, employers are increasingly recognising that allowing flexible working patterns and fitting around the older worker, befitting their senior status, brings greater knowledge wealth to the company, as well as valuable mentoring and experience for younger employees.

Culture shifts

Many companies need to be aware of the inevitable changes in working patterns that an older population is going to create. Yet we are experiencing an attitudinal shift where the career ambitions of people in their 60s and 70s are not obstructed by ageism, but rather a lack of realisation from companies of how older people want to work in future.

For example, rather than simply staying on in work, some older employees would prefer, for lifestyle or family reasons, to work in periodic ‘cycles’, rotating between periods of leisure and work. At the moment, there is not much room to manoeuvre within companies for this kind of working structure. However, when HR departments start to identify and allow for this, it is possible that lots of retirees with plenty to offer will comfortably fit back into the workplace.

The US has long-standing laws against age discrimination, and new legislation has recently been passed in the UK. This will ensure that older workers are not barred from work on grounds of age. However, legislation is not the only answer. There needs to be a shift towards recognising the valuable contributions that workers past retirement age can make. This change in cultural attitudes will only happen if CEOs understand the benefit it offers

The wisdom of age

It is possible that flexible working conditions may even allow people in their 80s or 90s to remain active in their careers. Rather than being seen as stolid members of the old guard, resistant to change and blocking the progression of younger colleagues, these workers could actually provide valuable knowledge and support to those looking to further their careers. Working in this almost consultative capacity offers many benefits, not just to a business and its staff, but also for the individual, recognising their value to society and improving their wellbeing.

A second, or extended, career allows those executives not ready to be put out to grass to remain significant to the business. In return, flexible working terms allow for leisure and family time. Pensions can also be topped up, maintaining a lifestyle that in other instances may need to be cut back on.

Those on the point of retirement can greet a bright future, not a grey one, if they still have the enthusiasm and appetite to make it happen.