I always get a kick (pun intended) out of Joe Paterno, the legendary Penn State football coach, when he talks about his intention to continue coaching past his current age of 83. If you’ve ever watched him on the sidelines during a game, he looks anything but his age; the man is in constant motion.
Asked recently why he chooses to continue coaching at an age when many people are in a nursing home, he says simply: “I love the game, and I am just as enthusiastic about it as I was when I started my coaching career.”
That word, “enthusiastic,” is key.
In 1996 I had the distinct pleasure of inducting the legendary heart surgeon, Michael DeBakey, into the Modern Healthcare Hall of Fame. Prior to the ceremony, we dined together and had a wonderful talk. He told me that at the height of his career he would do anywhere from 10 to 14 heart surgeries a day, starting at 6 a.m. He kept up that pace for decades. At the time of our talk, he was 87 (he would live to just a few months shy of 100), and still performing some surgeries. The thing that stood out in my mind after meeting him was not only his clarity of purpose but also his enthusiasm for his profession. You could just feel that love for his “game” by being in his presence.
Retirement is not a word that comes up much with most great people, who live to do what they do. Why should they stop if they are in good health?
I’ve interviewed a number of young people recently who have asked me what I think they should do with their careers. I start by telling them they should get involved in something they are just naturally interested in; the luckiest find something they love. A few young people know what career path they want to take well before they even enter college. But most don’t focus on careers until they graduate from college. Often they go to work in a field in which they only have a passing interest in, or indeed tolerance for, for financial reasons. They have “a career,” but they wind up leaving early, many retiring when they have enough put away to pull it off.
What such people don’t anticipate is the frustration of inaction and not being relevant. I’ve talked to any number of retired professionals, and it is interesting how many will say, with little prompting, how difficult it is to not have a reason to get up every day.
On the other hand, it often surprises me how many people I know who had full careers, enjoying every minute, but decide that the lure of “taking it easy” is too strong. It may take a few months, but soon they too miss the action.
Surprisingly, many companies still have mandatory retirement policies, which I believe is a waste of talent and a blow to many people’s lives. I know these policies are still in vogue in many companies because it makes room for younger people to move up, but I always wonder why companies don’t institute sabbatical policies as they do in academia. Sabbaticals would let burned-out executives walk away from their jobs for a protracted period of time to recharge their batteries by doing something else, before returning to their careers, perhaps in a less-stressful job.
Given the demographics of today, when there aren’t enough younger people to fill key leadership roles, you would think forward-looking institutions would be doing all they can to retain the talent and experience of more senior people.
I know there are those people who relish their retirement years. They’ve achieved their goals and simply want to enjoy the fruits of their labor by traveling as much as their retirement funds will allow. Obviously, those people have different attitudes than a Joe Paterno or a Michael DeBakey, who simply live for the thrill of their jobs. Working hard into your 80s or even 90s certainly isn’t for everyone, but when someone is lucky enough to have exceptional skills and the drive to continue in a chosen field as long as their health will allow, he or she should have the opportunity to do so.
After all, we only go this way once!