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Archive for March, 2009

Why We Need to Recalibrate Our Sense of “Old”

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

On his 80th birthday, Hugh Hefner said “80 is the new 40.”   In an article last summer, Sunset magazine proclaimed “100 is the new 70.”   Author and CEO Bill Byham titled a 2007 business book  70: The New 50. The numbers are fun, but so far, it seems in terms of the way we see it as a culture, 50 is still “old.”  We need to revisit that.  We are shooting ourselves in the collective foot big time.

The dictionary lists nine different definitions of the word “old.”  When we talk about “old” people, are we talking about “worn” or “experienced?”   Our continued success as a society hinges on which we choose.  Because 50 is not “worn” so much as polished.   We are throwing away really good stuff–and then paying to keep it somewhere else.

Seventy percent of the physical problems we blame on aging are actually the result of lifestyle choices.  It’s not your age that’s keeping you from doing that bike ride.  It’s that you haven’t walked farther than from the couch to the refrigerator in the last five years.  Excusing our bad habits with our birthdays is a downpayment on a long gloomy death spiral.   Most of us are going to live to 80.  Thirty years of assuming we can’t do what we want because we’re “old” is pretty tragic.

Businesses who assume 50 is “old” are squandering some of their best talent, too.  Instead of helping  the experienced workforce get comfortable with new technology, they look for ways to usher them out the door.  Instead of building multi-generational teams that capitalize on the full range of talents and skills available, they shove the experience in some corner where the younger workers can’t learn from it.  They literally watch needed expertise walk out the door into retirement without ever asking, “Any way we can get you to work for us on a more flexible basis?”

A recent issue of Wired magazine included an article about taking your job on the road–in your RV.  It wasn’t written for “old” people.    But it sure looks like a good marriage of “retirement” and staunching the experience drain.  The irony of the current business mindset is that while companies continue to assume that experienced workers want traditional retirement, they are creating flexible work arrangements to attract Gen Y workers as their replacements.  The “new kids” want  to work when they want wherever they want, responsible only for the end result rather than showing up every day.  It’s called ROWE–results only work environment.    To offer such options to new, inexperienced workers–who probably won’t reach the level of productivity the older workers have for ten years or maybe much longer–and NOT offer it as an alternative to retirement is painfully short-sighted.

As a business, there may also be room to retain the experience you already paid to develop in creative ways that take less than a full time salary to accomplish.   This is a tight labor market, yes.   But it’s also the perfect opportunity to try some things while the pace is a little slower.    How can you marry new technology with old savvy to get the best bang for your labor buck?

And then there is the little matter of government entitlements.  When someone retires, they go on everybody else’s payroll, via FICA taxes.  Social Security comes out of our collective wallets, not “the government’s.”   So when we expect people to be “old” and to retire around 62,  we buy in on taking care of them, in terms of Social Security checks, for an average of about 18 years.

Most  people retire in good health.  They are still capable of doing great work on something in which they believe, particularly if it’s a customized arrangement.  Instead, the invisible wall of ageism goes up around them.  The culture assumes they are washed up, worn out, and useless.   We pay them to “get out of the way” when they weren’t in the way in the first place.  And once they’ve retired, we make re-entry into the labor market, even if highly qualified, damn near impossible.  It’s like we are afraid “old” is contagious.

And it doesn’t stop there.  Once people start being “old,” they buy in on the stereotype.  They need more medical attention.  Much of it wouldn’t be necessary if these capable people could remain engaged.  But when the only person who’ll talk to you is your doctor, you talk to your doctor.  Once Medicare is part of that person’s setup, we are all pay the bill.

We need to revisit when “old” starts.  I’m voting for somewhere around 95 or maybe 98.  Many of us can keep going all the way to the day we die if we just have the opportunity.  People over 50 have a lot left to offer and a lot left to do. As a culture, we need to give them the chance.

5 Big Reasons NOT to Retire

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009


I’m not going to bother you with how you working longer benefits the nation and brings you more money.  I’m not going to remind you that staying employed usually means  better health care coverage.  Here are five other reasons why staying in the workforce may be better.

Not retiring is better for your physical health. People who continue to work stay healthier than people who retire to a life of leisure.  Working gives you a sense of purpose.  And purpose is good for you.

In a study of 900 aging religious, those with a strong sense of purpose lived life to the end with no sign of Alzheimer’s disease even though posthumous brain studies found the lesions characteristic of it.  A study of 12,460 middle-aged Hungarians found those who believed their lives had meaning had lower rates of both cancer and heart disease.  A retirement of drifting from thing to thing at leisure isn’t an automatic ticket to good health.

Not retiring maintains  your emotional health. Work is one of the best sources of self-esteem available.  If you are good enough at something to get paid to do it, that’s strong evidence of your worth.  Most of us don’t realize that’s important until after we let go of it.  Then we struggle to figure out why we are feeling “empty.”  We need to work.  If not for pay, then in some other context.

Not retiring gives you less incentive to hang onto a job you hate. If you are going to work for a long time and don’t plan to rely on your current company’s benefits for retirement, it makes perfect sense to find a better job, no matter how old you are.  But it’s tempting to tolerate a bad job fit or a boss that is literally making you sick in the name of “making it to retirement.”

If your job sucks and you’re going to have to work for as long as you live, for heaven’s sake go out and find one you like.  It might take some time to pull it off, but you still won’t be in your current unhappy place as long as if you hung on until you could retire.

Not retiring gives you more room to find your dream job. Let’s face it.  When it comes to work, it takes most of us some time to figure out what we like.  I know at lot more now than I did when I was forty.  As you learn what lights your fire, you can move toward that kind of work if you aren’t telling yourself that you’ll be “done” soon and that it’s too late to even thing about that.

There are people in their eighties who attribute their good health to the fact that they have to work.  A local lawyer is 99 and still goes to the office–but on a reduced workday.  That’s a piece of the dream job, too.  Maybe yours can be done from home or in alternate weeks, or using a WiFi connection from Maui.   If you know you’re going to have to work forever, finding something you love is essential.  Also more exciting.

Not retiring reduces your vulnerability Not working can leave you vulnerable a lot of ways.  You’re vulnerable to becoming isolated.  You’re vulnerable to having your income streams dry up.  You’re vulnerable to having way too much time on your hands if you lose a spouse or companion prematurely.

It’s easier to get a few more hours–or take on a second job for a while–if you’re already employed.   People need people, and the work setting is full of them.

The biggest lie of the traditional approach is that retirees are privileged to not be able to work.  That’s not how it started and not why it continues.  It’s a quiet, effective application of ageism.  “Here’s some money.  Now get out of the way.”  Nobody cares what you do or if you do it after you retire.  You’ve rendered yourself irrelevant.  Arghh!

Instead, find a way to work that’s fun.  Work at something you believe in.  And find a workstyle and employer that make you feel you have a life not just a job.   Retirement isn’t the only alternative.  If you find what you love can can thrive while employed.