I first found my passion for challenging the conventional workplace model about a decade ago when my boyfriend at the time (now my husband) had broken his back and was put on bedrest. My employer denied my request to do my portable work from home during his recovery. That refusal led me to wage what became a two-year campaign to combat their antipathy toward flexible work.
I made significant efforts to change their policies, submitting lengthy reports that included the business case for flex and an analysis of the success of dozens of organizations modeling flexibility–but I hit brick wall after brick wall.
Eventually it became clear that my biggest hurdle was tackling the long-held assumptions of the organization’s president and vice president about what work should look like. Both men in their 60s and 70s, they believed that work is a place you go every day, and that the privilege of working and rising in the ranks requires ongoing and deep personal sacrifice. And as institutional leaders, theirs was the model everyone followed.
I wasn’t able to change their minds, which meant I wasn’t able to make change at all. Ultimately I had no choice but to conform or quit. I set out to find a job with the flexibility I needed to be successful on my own terms and to try to effect workplace change on a broader scale. Happily I did both, becoming the founding director of a campaign called 1 Million for Work Flexibility.
A Common Thread
But it didn’t escape my notice that within a few years, both of those men had left the organization as well.
In particular, I was struck by the circumstances of their departures. Both retired. But there was more to the story: one made it clear he wasn’t actually ready to stop working, but was looking forward to a week or two of relaxation here and there. The other announced that he was leaving to move across the country to be closer to his grandchildren.
These men were defined by their careers. They’d been in their roles for decades. They lived and breathed their jobs. It was hard for me to believe that they walked out of the office for the final time without a backward glance.
How might their transitions at that stage of life differed, had they been open to new ways of thinking about work? If they had embraced the fact that productive work can be done remotely (nearer to grandchildren), and that it’s possible to do a job effectively on a reduced schedule (with a break here and there), we might all three have had many more years of fruitful contribution to offer.
Facing an Aging Crisis
Of course, I’ll never know what those two men really wanted out of their later lives. But I do know that just as their traditional ideas about work in general were outdated and impractical, so too are traditional ideas about retirement.
We are facing an aging crisis in America. Nearly half of Americans reaching the conventional retirement age of 65 have less than $25,000 in savings, and one in four have less than $1000. As life expectancy continues to climb, workers will increasingly need and want to work well beyond that marker, both to avoid impoverishment and to support long-term mental and physical health.
We need to end informal and mandatory retirement ages to ensure that no one is kicked out of the workplace before they are ready and able to leave. But at the same time, that can’t put us on a dystopian path toward a future full of 80-year-olds working 80-hour weeks. We must also offer pathways for aging workers to stay in the workplace with the flexibility necessary for success, by promoting phased retirement options.
Change is Not Owned By Any One Generation
What my former bosses failed to recognize above all (to their own personal detriment, in the end) is that the need to rethink the way we work is not confined to any single generation or any single circumstance.'The need to rethink the way we work is not confined to any single generation or any single circumstance.'Click To Tweet
That’s what continues to fuel my passion for change: the way we work is an issue that impacts all of us at all phases of our lives. I needed flex in my twenties. I need flex today in my thirties (and imminent forties). I will need flex in my sixties and seventies, and — let’s hope — beyond.
And while I must admit a part of me cheered when those former bosses left (“Make way for new ideas!”), those smug sentiments were short-lived, as I watched to see that change never came even in their absence: younger workers who’ve taken their place have simply perpetuated their antiquated ideas about work.
Because change, too, is not owned by any single generation. We are all equally susceptible to the power of inertia, and equally responsible for taking the reins and charging ahead. So now in this next chapter of my own life, I’m excited to join Respectful Exits with a rallying cry for aging workers, and an expectation of widespread impact across gender and generations if we make our voices heard.