Psychology Today: Here To Help


Two trends are converging to fundamentally alter the assumptions behind your retirement plans: short job tenure within organizations combined with longer working lives.

What are the implications?

Short Job Tenure

The trend towards organizational "right sizing" won't go away with the recession. Few of us can realistically think of a tenure track within one organization lasting longer than five years. Indeed, we can't remember a recent time when a senior executive client of ours referred to an organization as a place to stay for longer than five years. Most of our clients refer to job opportunities as "assignments."

Indeed, the best model for career planning may not be taught at Business Schools. It is theater and professional sports that provide the models for career planning in today's environment.

In these professions, jobs are understood to be little more than temporary assignments. Work groups are put together and altered on an on-going basis. And being "between assignments" is not an unnatural state. It is merely an uncomfortable phase of life one must go through as part of the price for having selected one's career.

Longer Working Life

Many of us think of age 65 as a "watershed" year. It is the year when we should either be well retired or well on the way to retirement. When the Social Security Act was established in 1935, age 65 was the time when citizens could begin collecting full benefits. But in 1935, the average age at death was 62. The AVERAGE age of death for a child born in 1991 will be 75!

We have added thirteen years to the average life span for U.S. citizens in a sixty year period. And these additional thirteen years will not be an additional period of old age. It will be an extension of middle age.

The cause of this tremendous expansion of the length of life is still unknown. The implication is profound:

Most of us will find the middle period of our lives to be twice as long as we think it will be. According to psychologist Lydia Bronte:

"If you have had reasonably good health habits, by the time you celebrate your sixtieth birthday, instead of being on the downward slope of old age you may have two or three decades of productive adult time ahead of you--time that is not much different in quality from what you experience at age sixty."

Funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Bronte interviewed 150 people actively employed and between the ages of 65 and 101. These people range from the famous to the unknown. Bronte believes these people may be more appropriate models for how we live our lives after age 60 than the ads we read from mutual funds advertising pension programs. Her work was published as The Longevity Factor: the new reality of long careers and how it can read to richer lives. (New York:Harper Collins, 1993).

New Career Models for a New Reality of Life

The trend towards shorter tenure within organizations means that many of us will not have saved enough money to finance a retirement on the traditional manner. Our retirement models often assume slow and steady contributions from the earnings of a stable career. The reality is that many of us will not have stable careers. Indeed, we will have periods of unemployment which may negatively impact our savings.

On the other hand, the longer life model implies that there will be more time for us to accumulate money for retirement than we suspected. Many of us who could not afford to retire at age 62 might be able to do so at age 70.

Bronte found that her study participants loved the work they did. Loving your work is going to be important if you are going to be at it for ten more years.

If you don't like what you are doing now, don't wait to collect your retirement benefits. Begin the process of positioning yourself to find something you like better. The chances are you will have the time to make both major job shifts and career shifts if you wish. As Bronte states:

"Flexibility, adaptability, and a refusal to stay too long at work they didn't enjoy are all trademark qualifies of the study participants that worked to their advantage. The single most important element to developing a long career or creating an active post-retirement life is to find meaningful and fulfilling work, whether paying or nonpaying, that keeps you active, engaged, and happy."

The older models of career had rigid phases of life called "School," "Full Time Work," and "Retirement." The present model has fuzzy boundaries where school, full time, contingency employment, and periods of non-employment all mix in exciting and scary possibilities. And that model won't change anytime soon!

Bronte's book shows the range of possibilities now open to people in the decades beyond age sixty-five. It is useful to see what they have done with their lives. But it is also important to remember that they are pioneers. Many of us have yet to come to grips with the implications of a professional world marked by short tenure combined with long middle age.

Dr. Laurence J. Stybel and Maryanne Peabody are co-founders of Stybel Peabody Lincolnshire, a senior executive level career consulting firm based in Boston and twenty five other cities in three countries. They were voted "Best retained search Firm" by the readers of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly. Maryanne and Larry can be reached at 781/736-0900.