Speaking at a conference in June 2015 on the future of finance organized by hisSingularity University, Salim Ismail highlighted the impact of greater longevity on society at all levels. “We’re adding three months to life per calendar year,” he said, adding: “In a decade or two, or three, there will be a class of people taking treatments who can live for a long time, and that affects employment planning, retirement planning … Society will never have seen that before.” (1) In other words, many of us around the age of 50 will probably live to beyond 100, which will mean giving careful thought to planning for the second half, or perhaps even the remaining two thirds, of our lives, particularly bearing in mind that retirement age is being pushed back steadily by our governments, delaying access to a state pension.
Twelve years ago, when I was appointed Dean of IE Business School at the age of 42, I spoke with a friend and coach about further developing my potential and whether it would be a good idea to come up with a plan to continue progressing my career, particularly if things took didn’t work out. He asked me the following question: Have you ever planned your career? “No,” I answered. “Then why start now?” he said. I have to admit his advice made me feel better, and I stopped speculating about my professional future. What’s more, one of the advantages of working in academia is that if you tire of management you can always return to teaching and research.
That said, given our extended life expectancy, it would be foolish not to have a plan B for one’s working life after the age of 45 until whatever time we retire. This is when we are reaching the peak of our maturity, a time when we tend to be more emotionally stable, when perhaps we have attained a certain reputation in our work and among our colleagues, when we can benefit from our experiences in life, and can trust our judgment. In this senior age we are perhaps less motivated by financial reward and inclined to look for other satisfactions from our work, at the same time, we will have established strong ties with the organization that employs us that go beyond dependence on the boss or CEO.
In short, it is important to keep the initiative and to keep thinking about goals: “It’s up to you to keep yourself engaged and productive during a work life that may span some 50 years,” says Peter Drucker, the father of modern management, in an article that should be read by everybody. (2) We would be kidding ourselves if we thought that we could leave all this to the state or the company we have worked for.
Living longer than we ever have, which is surely something to celebrate, we do however need to think about a number of issues related to managing the future of our careers.
– In the first place, we need to be optimistic and see this later stage in life as the best of all of them, the one in which we can put to use everything we have learned so far, and that will feel more intense, as well as giving meaning to our relationships with family and friends and what we have achieved.
– By now, we should have taken the Ancient Greeks’ advice to know thyself, and acquired a little self-knowledge. But as Drucker explains, few of us have any idea about our strengths and weaknesses. Introspection, the search for feedback from colleagues, or coaches even, the advice of friends, and taking in the opinions of others are a good idea. Curiously, the passage of time generates two types of attitude among successful people: they are either arrogant and distant, or modest, open, and accessible. Which of these two extremes would you say characterizes you? There is no need to point out which of the two is the wiser attitude, and that allows us to continue learning as well as to inspire younger generations.
Drucker lays out a series of questions that can help us know ourselves a little better, and thus get an idea of the management tasks we can carry out, although if by now we haven’t acquired a basic understanding of what makes us tick, we’re probably not going to get much done. Drucker asks us to think about how we learn best, whether we’re readers or listeners, if we work well with other people or are loners, and whether we are decision makers or advisers. These are all relevant questions, because even if we’ve developed abilities that allow us to lead, even when we’re outside our comfort zones, it is always best to build on our strengths rather than to try to correct our weaknesses. This advice is particularly relevant in the second half of our life, given that it is harder to correct long-established behavior patterns, not that it cannot be achieved through systematic practice.
– You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, goes the saying. Which is perhaps why it is so special when we meet an older person who is still interested in listening to what younger people have to say, who can recognize when they are right, and who is open to new ideas and experiences. It’s possible; in fact I would say necessary, to cultivate this attitude of openness to change when we are older, particularly if we are going to be staying in our jobs longer into the future. This requires humility, particularly with younger people: we can learn so much from them. Little wonder that growing numbers of company are implementing inverse mentoring programs wherein younger employees can open the eyes of their older colleagues to new trends, explain technology, and what the younger generation is concerned about.
– Lifelong learning means just that: we need to continue acquiring new skills into old age. There are any number of studies showing that using our memory and analytical skills helps generate new brain cells. And if we can meet younger people when studying, then our education will be a much more enlightening experience. Studying puts us on the same basis as our classmates, removing age from the equation. One of the exciting things about classrooms composed of students of all ages is that the younger members become older, so to speak, and the older participants are rejuvenated. Lifelong learning is one of the best treatments against old age.
– The second half of our professional lives, says Peter Drucker, can be an opportunity to change direction and start a new career, for example starting a company, becoming a social entrepreneur, or working for a not-for-profit organization. Our professional experience, network of contacts, and in some cases money we have saved up gives us a head start over younger colleagues.
The chance to begin a second career is particularly recommended for those of us who have to take early retirement in our mid-fifties, or if the board of directors is changed, the CEO leaves, or the company is acquired or merged. The same might also apply to members of the armed forces passed up for promotion and assigned to the reserve.
Business schools are waking up to the opportunities this older student segment represents, and are increasingly creating programs for professionals with a couple of decades of useful working life that want to change direction, start their own company, work with not-for-profit organizations, or put their experience to use as coaches or mentors. (3)
– This phase in our lives is also an opportunity to put our career in perspective, consolidating the arc of success in our earlier life. Frank Sinatra summed this up perfectly when he once said: “I’m flying high kid. I’ve planned my career. From the first minute I walked on a stage I determined to get exactly where I am.” (4)
Maturity is also a time when our personal values, which have guided us over the years, stand out more, take on greater meaning, and can form part of a narrative that we can pass on to younger generations.
– Among the opportunities available to older professionals is serving as a non-executive director. Highlighting the increased responsibilities of board directors, demands for greater compliance, the need to spend more time preparing or reading reports, as well as keeping up to date on developments in their sectors,Eugene H. Fram has suggested appointing people with more than 20 years experience at director level to take care of these responsibilities. This is already the case for retired senior partners in accounting firms, who are highly sought after for their insight, assuming there is no conflict of interest. (5)
– I have always believed that a knowledge and appreciation of the humanities and the arts deeply enriches the work of a director, after all, the true meaning of philosophy really only comes to us later in life. At the same time, cultivating the humanities allows us to see our endeavors in the context of other civilizations and other times.
– If there is one thing we should have learned as we enter our fifties, it’s that luck will have played a bigger part than we thought in our careers. A growing number of economists are now recognizing how unpredictable events can play a decisive role at certain moments. In his Diamond Model, Michael Porter, an expert in strategic management at Harvard Business School, puts luck alongside other factors such as government policy in establishing a nation’s competitive strengths. (6)
– To conclude, a piece of advice, if I may be permitted. If you are a senior executive, don’t take yourself too seriously. It is essential to hold on to our sense of humor throughout our lives if we want to remain sane, as has been shown by research into psychological cognition, and especially in later years.
Nobel laureate TS Eliot once said: “The years between fifty and seventy are the hardest. You are always being asked to do more, and you are not yet decrepit enough to turn them down.” (7) Perhaps we are entering an age when the most productive and motivated generations will be those past fifty, and perhaps the best poetry and novels will be written not in our thirties, but in our seventies.
(2)Peter Drucker: Managing Oneself, The Best of Harvard Business Review 1999
(3) E.g., the Senior Fellow Program at IE Business School, or Harvard Business School’s
(5) Eugene H. Fram, Are Professional Board Directors the Solution?, MITSloan Management Review, Vol. 46, Nª 7, Winter 2005
(6)Michael Porter; The Competive Advantage of Nations, Harvard Business School Press, 1990
(7) Time, 23 October 1950