The right time to quit your job

October 26, 2014
JOHN BELL
JOHN BELL

You like your job – but is it time to move on? More people in their 50s and 60s are delaying their retirement. They’ve heard the message about working longer. But how long is too long? Is staying in one job for 30 years long enough? What about 42 years in the same university department, as is the case with an academic I know? With no legal retirement age in Australia, you literally can work in the one place till you drop. But some people who’ve saved enough might be better off quitting on their own terms while respected, healthy, and able to explore other possibilities.

The resignation of John Bell as artistic director of the Bell Shakespeare Company he founded 25 years ago spurred my thinking about the right time to retire. He’ll be 75 by the time he bows out next year. At the same time, another veteran of the Sydney theatre scene, Sandra Bates, announced that she, too, would retire after 30 years at the helm of the Ensemble Theatre. It’s not easy to leave a job you like. And you can hear their ambivalence. “I have to say there is a degree of reluctance because I so enjoy it,” Bates told the Sydney Morning Herald, adding that macular degeneration was the main reason for leaving. And Bell, referring to his offsider who’ll be taking over, said: “Peter [Evans] probably can’t wait for me to get out the door.”

It’s a tricky issue. Even to question whether some older workers hang on too long can sound ageist. Over years, older workers have been blamed for hogging the jobs, and reducing the opportunities of the young. Some European countries have provided early retirement programs in an effort to soak up the huge numbers of unemployed young people. And if Australia’s 13 per cent unemployment rate among 15-24 year-olds persists, the younger generations here may mount the same arguments for early rather than delayed retirement. The arguments are wrong. Study after study has discredited the theory that older workers “crowd out” the young from jobs. Rather, the economies which are best at retaining older workers also are best at employing the young. A growing economy creates opportunities for all ages.

While that’s true on the economy-wide level, at the level of a particular firm or institution the story may be different. Opportunities for a young person may open up only when an older one retires. Universities are classic cases of limited full-time positions and a long list of young aspirants stuck for years in low-paid, casual tutoring work. The ABC is another case. To be a presenter on ABC radio, especially Radio National, is a rare and precious prize, and no wonder those who win it hold on for a quarter century or more.

I speak with experience of “hanging on”, having written a weekly column (among reporting duties) for the Sydney Morning Herald for about two decades. What a job! But I held it too long, attached to having a public platform, status, routine, and to be honest, fear. What else could I be good at? Ironically when I took redundancy (with dozens of older hands) two years ago, I was replaced not by a younger or new voice, but by voices of experience and stature. Moving on does not always guarantee the young get a go, and nor should it if they don’t yet have what it takes. Overall, however, more young people at the newspaper seized the chance to move into senior jobs, and the balance of young to older shifted. In such re-structures there are wins and losses: the dead wood goes but also the sharp, wise and ageless heads.

How is it possible to assess if it’s time to go? If you ask yourself whether you’re coasting, or still one of the sharp, ageless ones will you give yourself an honest answer? Patricia Shaw, director of career transitions at Audrey Page and Associates, told me: “If you’re no longer curious, interested, enlivened by your work that’s probably the strongest signal it’s time to go. You have to ask yourself ‘Does my job still bring challenges and rewards? Am I still the very best person to be doing this job?’”

A 65-year-old friend who’s a medical specialist told me he would ask his colleagues to tell him when he was no longer at the top of his game. But Patricia Shaw said often colleagues and even bosses can be reluctant to have such difficult conversations out of respect or even legal considerations. “The signals can be very subtle,” she said. Peter Black, a certified retirement coach, told me the external signals can include being overlooked for promotion, and lack of respect from younger colleagues. “Obviously health problems are a signal, and a reluctance to embrace change,” he said.

If we lived in a less ageist world, it would be easier for older workers to change jobs or careers. It’s not age that’s the problem here; it’s getting stale. In a new environment, many would flourish and make an enormous contribution. They love working. But most employers are yet to see the light. Stale or not, it’s worth examining how you might replace the good things your job provides. Even former Prime Minister John Howard, who hung on too long and ended up ignominiously losing his seat in the 2007 election, has since written two books and appears to have made a purposeful new life.

Am I being ageist? Or is knowing when to leave a job important? Please comment.

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