Unlike me, many people make their own decision when to retire. Very often, this is a long process of self-examination. Have I checked off my professional goals? Do I still have something to contribute? Are my superiors encouraging my work? Do I feel like I continue to gel with my co-workers? And most commonly, have I planned well enough to have financial security when I leave?
When is it time to leave?
Feelings about the status of one’s current career will certainly take the lead in the decision of when it is the right time to leave. But there are other important considerations which are part of the broader picture. When is it someone else’s turn? Younger workers have famously complained that older workers are shutting them out of all the good jobs, but research finds that this is not true. Even so, it is worthwhile to take a look at relinquishing a place in your profession to the next generation.
It should be noted that there are rare opportunities for “wise elders” to return from retirement under unusual circumstances. Joe Biden, with his vast experience and network in the government was able to hit the ground running after one of the most challenging times in US History. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellin is another outlier needed at a critical time. However, politics is an excellent place to start looking at the phenomenon of elders not knowing when it is time to leave. Currently, there are seven Senators over the age of 80. The last presidential election was a battle between two septuagenarians. Is it necessary to bring up the decades long influence of Mitch McConnell or Nancy Pelosi? By contrast, Angela Merkel graciously shifted the reins to a younger woman of similar persuasion at an opportune moment.
Why younger workers can have an important advantage
Although older workers are sometimes valued for their loyalty, experience, and work ethic, there are many beneficial reasons to turn your post over to a younger person, besides the fact that your work is building for a future you will only be a part of, for a limited time. These reasons are in the category of “generational differences.” A generation is typically delineated as 25 years. In other words, there will be qualitative differences between people born 25 years apart.
If we take a look at Generations Y (born 1980-2000) and Z (2000-present), you will get a better picture of what has happened in society during the past 25 plus years. These folks are quite likely digital natives: they don’t remember a world without technology. They’ve experienced Covid-19, global terrorism, climate change, the Great Recession, and now the Great Inflation. They live in a seamless world of friends, information and entertainment. On the very positive side, Gen Y and Z are more accepting of diversity. They have a strong sense of social justice and they are flexible. On the negative side, they expect quick results, have weaker social skills and don’t always determine the validity of information.
Boomers do have their pluses which are valued in the workplace. They are efficient, value teamwork and quality, and live to work. Gen Y and Z work to live, offer respect only if they are respected, and live more spontaneously. It is not your imagination that you are very different than your younger office mates - and a larger percentage of the world's population!
Compelling reasons to retire
So how does one make the hard decision of when it is time to leave? It is best to look around. Three areas are worthy of a close look: your passion for your work, the nuts and bolts of your profession and how you feel about yourself when you are with your younger colleagues. I’ll give you a personal case study.
At the university which was my last place of employment, the junior faculty were often heard questioning why elder colleagues approaching 70 were still working. In the field of education the landscape was changing rapidly. Information relating to learning disabilities and neuroscience was changing classroom pedagogy. Politics had created much too much testing. Corporate consolidation of companies producing educational materials made every classroom in America too similar. Most classrooms were populated with diverse student populations who were new English Language Learners. In addition, the Covid pandemic created mammoth changes in so many students at every level.
Were these older professors able to reflect these needs in their classes? Certainly, many were up to date in their journal reading and conference attendance. But had they “lived” the new reality in schools? Absolutely not. Professionally speaking, you can’t really teach what you haven’t lived.
A personal realization
Around the office, other generational factors were hiding in plain sight. I began to resent my small staff keeping their phones on their desks, and prioritizing them frequently during the workday. I was grouchy about them taking time off for reasons that didn’t seem valid. I was convinced they didn’t have the same sense of “urgency” I had about our work.
On a physical level, towards the end of my career, I felt like the work day and commute were much too long for my body. I also felt trapped by the long hours in my office, yearning to be anywhere else. My office chair and car seat needed to be fitted with remedial seat cushions.
Most importantly, when it came to education, in view of all the societal changes, I was not sure I could be a cheerleader for this profession, and secretly told my friends I would never be a public school teacher in the current environment.
I am not familiar with your career, and cannot predict how you are feeling (or did feel) about the next generation of colleagues in your profession. Perhaps these three questions might help:
Do (did) you still have passion for, and are (were) you completely up to speed in your professional content?
Do (did) you feel like an equal peer with your colleagues of all ages?
What messages are (did) your body and soul send(ing) you during the workday?