Unwanted: Early Retirement

November 30, 2007 Barbara Moses, Ph.D

Globe & Mail

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

Globe & Mail

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

When a 52-year-old friend recently described herself as retired, I was stunned. Retired? More like the Energizer Bunny.

She recently left an executive position with a major international agency. Now, when she is not taking on freelance translation assignments in Europe or more locally, she takes all types of movement classes and prepares five-star-worthy meals. She is also researching thesis topics as she readies herself to apply to a PhD program in art history.

Somehow “retired” seems so wrong in describing her.

Of course, the word carries a lot of freight. What comes to mind are people who talk about fibre sources, share endless photos of their travels, and send e-mails filled with exclamation marks.

True, some people such as my friend are exceptionally engaged in what the media have called their “second youth” or “third life chapter.”
But they wear only one face of retirement. The flip side is not as inspiring.

In today’s harsh work environment, more and more people find themselves forced into a retirement for which they are unprepared.

Here’s the paradox: On the one hand, organizations fret about a coming skills shortage and the need to retain and motivate older workers. On the other, those same employers often treat older workers shabbily.

Sussannah Kelly, president and managing director of Boyden global executive search in Toronto, says she is seeing a growing number of older, high-performing workers in senior roles losing their positions to younger, less expensive replacements. Many can’t find new jobs precisely for the same reason. And many have either inadequate pensions or no access to them yet.

These older workers still have a lot to contribute, and often need to work, for both financial and emotional reasons.

“It’s truly discriminatory,” Ms. Kelly says, “but no one calls it what it is. You don’t see this happen in progressive organizations, but there are still many organizations that don’t have sophisticated or enlightened practices.”

While some are pushed out, others feel they have no choice but to quit.
Take one former client, a vice-president of human resources. Following an organizational restructuring, he was assigned a new boss with a very different vision – so different that my client was expected to oversee the dismantling of projects that he had led, with pride and praise, to completion.

After wrestling for months with depression, he quit. “I’d rather deliver pizza than stay here a moment longer,” he said.

A common story I hear from many employees of a certain age: They feel like they’re seen as disposable units of productivity long past their best-before date. (In fairness, I’ve also seen some who really should have left already. They cling to jobs they have outgrown because of inertia or fear of taking a risk.)

A gradual erosion of self-esteem is often the deciding factor for retirement, as it was for one former acquaintance, a marketing director, who quit when she could take it no more.

“When they use descriptions like ‘no runway,’ ‘no fire in your belly,’ and ‘blocking young up and comers,’ you want to crawl into a hole and hope no one discovers you. Sure I could have stayed, but at what price? It’s unfair that this is the thanks you get at the end of a great career.”

Perhaps the cruellest cut is the sense of injustice at being forced out at a stage of their careers that they thought would be their swan song. Here they were, trusted by colleagues, doing their most creative work and mentoring younger workers. Then along comes a change in corporate direction. Suddenly, they no longer feel valued.

One friend who recently retired from her senior-level job under less-than-happy circumstances said it was like she’d completely fallen off the Earth and “been disappeared.”

No wonder victims of unwanted retirement feel like they have become phantoms of their former selves, either brooding and depressed or overly jocular.

Ask how they are doing, and they’ll say: “Great.” Meanwhile, they could be taking anti-depressants and had no success at finding needed replacement income.

My former client who quit his vice-president of HR job hung out a shingle as a consultant. But, like many who have spent an entire working career in a corporate environment, he was ill-equipped for life outside. He didn’t know how to sell himself or his services. He wrote proposals that were long and tedious. Other consultants took advantage of him. He failed to earn any money. He never regained the confidence he’d enjoyed at the top of his game.

Embracing a blank canvas for the first time can also be challenging. Recently, on a particularly nasty rainy day, I asked my friend who had left her senior job reluctantly: “Aren’t you glad that you don’t have to go into work today?”

She said it made her sad. She missed the structure that gave her day a sense of meaning.

Digesting the loss, getting over the bitterness, and developing a vision of yourself engaged in the world in a new way takes time. But after some initial difficulty, many are able to move on effectively to the next phase.
A few weeks later, my friend said she’d thought more about my question, and realized it actually was great to be able to watch the rain out of the window. She had just been operating on an automatic program that told her she should be at work.

Others may never be able to go the next step. This is especially true of “formerly important persons,” or FIPs – mostly executives and high-level professionals for whom work has been the centrepiece of identity. They become lost and deflated without the structure and prestige of a title.
It is natural, of course, to have emotional road bumps when confronted with loss as you move into a new, sometimes unplanned, life chapter. And it’s particularly hard on FIPs who have been accustomed to being in charge of their lives, admired and respected as problem-solvers who were always needed.

It’s also true that men are likelier to experience the loss more acutely than women. They are likelier to withdraw emotionally and suffer from a longer period of depression.

But I’ve also seen many women go through significant separation pain. They experience career loss as deeply as some of their stay-at-home sisters experience empty nest syndrome. Call it empty BlackBerry syndrome.

The prophylactic for midlife women is that they derive satisfaction from more life domains than men do. They look to their friends, children, hobbies and book clubs. The may think that what happened to them was unfair, but they see more to their lives than work, and will embrace opportunities, whether recreational, volunteer or work, that allow them to test themselves in new arenas.

Obviously, for everyone, having control over the decision of when and how to exit makes a difference. But as an increasingly number of older workers don’t have this luxury, it is not only these individuals who are hurt. Organizations also pay the price.

When companies treat their older workers poorly, they send out a demoralizing message. Other staff see admired managers leave for no other apparent reason than their age. Witnessing a wave of early retirements only contributes to a lack of confidence in high-performing older workers.

Those left behind also suffer. Many managers become over-burdened as they are fast-forwarded into positions for which they’ve received insufficient training.

Nobody benefits from the loss of intelligence when older employees are shown the door – neither workers nor their employers.

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