Graduation & Retirement: Three Strategies for Surviving Both
Joseph F. Coughlin is director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab (http://agelab.mit.edu). His research explores how demographic change, technology and consumer behavior drive innovations in business and society. Coughlin teaches in MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the Sloan School's Advanced Management Program. He is author of the new book The Longevity Economy: Unlocking the World's Fastest-Growing, Most Misunderstood Market (Public Affairs, 2017).
It’s graduation season and young people everywhere are listening to speeches rife with promises of new beginnings. With one baby boomer turning 67 every seven to eight seconds, many older adults are embarking on a new adventure as well – retirement. While age, experience, and bank accounts may divide them, freshly minted Gen Y graduates and boomers nearing retirement have two things in common: they are both hopeful yet hesitant about their futures. Here are three strategies that these two generations, perhaps more similar than many realize, can use to navigate the future of work and working retirement together.
1. Find Out Where You Really Fit In & Be Prepared for It to Change (Often)
Gone are the days of newspaper job clippings and “help wanted” signs in shop windows. One might assume the tech-oriented Gen Y’er has an advantage in this era of online job search, but countless search engines and job postings can be incredibly overwhelming. Where to start? When to end? And what to do when we don't get the response we are hoping for?
It is not uncommon for Gen Y'ers to hear from friends, "I graduated a year ago, spend my days filling out two or three job applications with pristine cover letters and resumes, show up for the occasional interview, but mostly just wait for firms willing to risk a new hire with plenty of promise but little experience.” Likewise, older adults are looking for work too. The difference is that, unlike the prospect of new college grads expecting to start at the bottom, companies are less smitten by the idea of hiring older adults. Boomers are retiring, willingly or not, and scouring the same online postings for paid positions. The former group: "I'm not entirely qualified for this, but there's nothing else to apply for." The latter: "They will never hire me for this because I'm overqualified (or in some cases, not qualified enough because of new technologies) – and they can't afford me.
Suggestion for both cohorts: let go of your laptop and lace up your walking shoes. Set up some informational interviews, get in touch with that friend of a friend who may know someone, make some business cards, slap a smile on your face and show up in person. And then go home and apply to a quarter of the jobs you've been applying to. Moreover, Gen Y’ers: adjust your expectations. Today’s corporations are not prepared to provide a job for life and a well-defined career trek – global markets, technology and general uncertainty makes that difficult if not impossible in a world where you may have many careers over a half-century of work. Boomers: most of us are saying our retirement plan is to keep working. The future of work is not necessarily doing more of the same but learning new skills, taking new positions and coming to the table with new expectations. Among them might be accepting a position that is not based upon your ‘seniority,’ but where you can make the best business case to be.
2. Adapt, Adjust, Repeat
In public: "You're graduating/retiring in a week! You've been in school/working forever. You must be so excited, huh?" You: "Yeah, you bet!"
In private: pacing...sweating...panting...messy sobbing...medicating. These huge life transitions present more than a change of occupation – they take the age-old question of "Who am I?" and magnify it by (insert age here), and then add in the old "and what's my purpose" question for good measure. Many of us define ourselves by what we do, and moving from "student" to “recent grad” leaves a similar taste in one's mouth as the switch from "engineer" to “retired.” Most of us walk warily into the great unknown. No one, at any age, wants to be ‘that guy’ (or gal) who is burning through movies and munchies on his couch, sometimes venturing out into the light only for a new box of cereal or something else with crumbs.
Suggestion to anyone facing a major life transition: say the following to yourself each day. “I am more than my work, I will adjust to constant change, I will adapt to the new, and I will succeed.” And then go get a hobby and invest time into learning something new – from a new language, technology, or skill to a new experience altogether. Whether you’re moping on the couch or out pounding the pavement, the future is constantly being invented, and it takes constant effort to keep up. Oh, and while you’re learning the ‘new,’ you might as well set up an informational interview at one of those firms that’s inventing it.
3. Move the “Me” to “We”
It’s no surprise that the original “Me” Generation, the baby boomers, have given birth to another generation that focused on the proverbial “me.” Members of Gen Y, staring down rent payments and college loans, are justifiably concerned about there being room in the workplace for “me.” Baby boomers who’ve seen their 401(k)s shrink since 2008 are now planning to work through retirement to make enough money for ‘me’ to pay for healthcare, general living expenses – and support their parents and children! Both generations may be victims of their life stage, but both would be wise to redefine the “Me” into “We.”
Here is a suggestion: Merge forces. Gen Y'ers, think about your generation's most notable entrepreneurs. Now think about them 30 years from now and beyond. They’re not going to stop innovating just because they’re older. And Boomers: think about Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Barbara Walters, Jay Leno, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter at age 22. They weren’t worthless just because they were green. Innovation, creativity, contribution and tech savvy are not the property of any one generation or age. So while our workplace ‘expiration date’ in America (much younger elsewhere) is still mistakenly stamped 65, Gen Y’ers should view the 60-something with one foot out the office door as an untapped resource. Bill Gates does not need Warren Buffet’s cash, but he apparently still listens to the 82 year old sage’s advice, because there are still things to learn, do, and in some cases avoid, that can only be known with the insight and experience gained with time. And meanwhile, at over 70 years old, Herbie Hancock does not turn down the volume on 30-something John Mayer. They collaborate and co-create. Boomers: Gen Y'ers are waiting for their big break. Give them that opportunity by collaborating on a project or two – they may be able to show you new ways to do old tasks and spark innovative new ideas for your and your company. Together, the two “me” generations can be much more than the sum of their parts.
MIT AgeLab’s Julie Miller, MSW and Gen Y member contributed to this article.
Image by Shutterstock
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