As a longtime champion of flexible and better ways of working, I saw earlier than most the massive, threatening, but largely invisible crisis looming in our future. The urgent need for Respectful Exits became clear as I watched the first of 60 million of my Boomer cohorts begin to be put out to pasture in the face of Recession-depleted savings, degraded pensions, and a shredded safety net.
Without planning or preparation, we have moved from a 1930s model of work that assumes a 65-year lifespan to today’s “longevity economy” that enables life and work well into one’s 90s. In the face of this profound change, our workplace systems and structures remain stubbornly cemented in old habits. I set out with the restless and innovative Boomer generation to change all that. To a great degree, my story is their story.
Embracing the American Dream
I was born on the leading edge of the baby boom, a true believer in and beneficiary of the American Dream. A working class kid, I pushed myself, aimed high in school, and caught the brass ring. The first collegian in my family, I spent four years at Stanford University, courtesy of a scholarship and part-time and summer jobs.
Steeped in the ideals of the Founding Fathers and the bios of “great men”, I had planned a career in law and politics. But these ambitious goals and lofty principles ran headlong into the tumult of the 1960s. In the fall of 1963 as I unpacked my bags as an idealistic freshman at the sunny, bucolic “Harvard of the West”, dozens of upperclassmen were suspending their studies to head to Mississippi to join the growing civil rights movement—and returning with inspiring stories.
Rethinking the True Meaning of “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”
As a young, healthy, Christian white male, I’d been told I could be anything I wanted, and I believed it. My choice: President of the United States. But that was not to be. Vietnam upended my world. The draft challenged men of my age. Facing the imminent end of our student deferments, hundreds of thousands of us faced the stark and life-altering choices of war, conscientious objection, Canada, or invented “medical conditions.”
Suddenly, peaceful, polite, and privileged campuses were roiled by powerful anti-war, anti-draft, civil rights, and feminist movements. In our pursuit of the American dream, we were now forced to redefine our unique and personal paths to life, liberty, and happiness. Many of us became activists and learned the power of masses of people in motion to make significant social change.
Entering the Workforce with Change in Mind
As protests wound down, I entered the workforce determined both to do good and do well. I pursued my change agenda through founding and leading a number of innovative Bay Area start-ups in medicine, counseling, publishing, and mediation. I applied my democratic notions through flexible management, staffing, and scheduling as the most productive and satisfying way to organize work. It made sense, it worked well—and I assumed it was how things were done.
But it quickly became apparent that this model of work that made sense to me was far from universal. In 1986 I was asked to join the pioneering flexibility think tank, New Ways to Work, in San Francisco. Intrigued, I took on a national advocacy project to transform the rigid, industrial habit of 9-to-5, 5-day workweeks. We promoted flextime, part-time, telework, compressed workweeks, job sharing—and phased retirement.
After six years I concluded that employer change required more than advocacy; it needed to be grounded in intensive consulting. I shifted gears and spent the following twenty-five years introducing into a range of employers flexibility that has served both employers and employees.
Taking Action on the “Orphan Option”
But I quickly I learned that all flex options were not created equal. Some became relatively common (flextime), others continue to be rare today (job sharing). Phased retirement stood out as an entirely un-adopted orphan. In 2007, after two decades of working with more than 100 clients, one finally took the plunge with good results. But otherwise, the message was consistent: it is one thing to consider part-time and flexible work for young people whose future we value; but aging workers have limited careers left and don’t justify the investment.'We can’t wait any longer for phased retirement to have its due. Longevity is upon us.'Click To Tweet
We can’t wait any longer for phased retirement to have its due. Longevity is upon us. Aging workers can, want to, and often must work longer and more flexibly to survive and thrive in extended lives and retirement. In this case, consulting alone is not the answer, nor can we just expect to age in place without specific action. As with other great social campaigns, the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness is a social challenge demanding grassroots and workplace action. Only aging workers becoming a powerful and organized voice can achieve this essential right.
Respectful Exits intends to mobilize Boomers and those who are stepping into our roles to make the changes in the way we work that will allow us to retire with dignity and in continuing pursuit of our American dreams. I am proud to be part of this growing movement and committed to its success.
Join us as we continue our best tradition of changing our world for a better future.