The Retirement Dilemma

The Retirement Dilemma


At times, it would seem that Sachin Tendulkar is the first man to have retired from a successful career, such has been the mass hysteria around his last appearance in Indian team colours.

Retirement is a decision that comes relatively early to sportsmen, between 30 and 40 years. The problem is that the vacuum will be difficult to fill, from the adrenaline- fuelled high of competing at the highest level and being part of a team of achievers, to a retiree.

Sportsmen have to obey their bodies, but what of those in the corporate world who have earned enough to retire by the time they are 50, or even younger, and still keep going, clearly reluctant to give up all the intangible benefits that come with a top executive position. It’s even harder when you are a founder of a company or a member of the founding family.

In a recent interview, Shiv Nader, founder-chairman of HCL, now closing in on his 70th birthday, seemed almost shocked when he was asked about retirement plans. “I don’t have any,” he responded testily.

Narayana Murthy, the same age as Nader, had officially retired, but lost no time in returning to the company he co-founded when the opportunity arose.

Ratan Tata, 75, also officially retired, is still very much in the thick of things, though his old office is now occupied by Cyrus Mistry. There are numerous others, but it is not just an Indian thing.

Many of the world’s most influential business leaders are confronting the same decision as they continue to rule their empires in their 80s and even 90s.

Leaders in their 80s include Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway, Rupert Murdoch of News Corp and T Boone Pickens Jr of JP Capital. Kirk Kerkorian of Tracinda is 95. Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone and Li Ka-Shing, chairman of Hutchison Whampoa, are both 84.

Obviously, money is not what keeps these people working. They keep going for other reasons. Ego and power, for instance. Sitting on your yacht or by the pool in some fancy mansion does nothing for the ego compared to being in an office where people are looking to you for decisions, where the adrenaline is pumping all the time as you look at risk factors, hiring talent, motivating staff, chairing meetings and experiencing the rush that comes with the exercise of power. It’s a high that many corporate experts call ‘owning the experience’.

In myriad surveys, at the top of the list of reasons why people in high positions keep going long after retirement age is simply because they like working.

Exotic vacations are fine, but work provides mental stimulation, creativity, a desire to stay active, interaction with a team of achievers and, above all, the kick that comes from being the boss.

Just feeding on the buzz of the workplace is unlike anything else. “Most people who have participated in the workplace over the last 30 years have found themselves in a position of importance or relevance, and it’s very hard to walk away from being relevant,” says Brian Schwartz, a vice-president and financial adviser for HSBC Securities.

Other analysts point to the fact that, over a period of time, boss or not, the job becomes part of your identity, something very difficult to live without. “If you have been in the workforce for 25-plus years, it’s very likely that what you do is really connected to who you are,” says Marci Alboher, vice-president of and author of The Encore Career Handbook. Your job is your identity and that extends to your social life as well. So many of the friends you make are to do with that aspect of your life—peers, if you will.

The new twist is longevity. Medical advances and lifestyle changes have extended life spans all across the world. In the US, it’s now 76 years for men and 81 years for women. In India, life expectancy for Indian men has gone up from 48.6 years in 1970 to 63.2 years in 2010, while for women, it has risen from 49.1 years to 67.5 years.

These days, people in their late 60s and 70s are fit, physically and mentally, and for many, work is what keeps the blood flowing and degenerative diseases at bay.

So what is the ideal age to actually contemplate retirement? The scientific community’s consensus on long-reigning tycoons is that all good things come to an end. Some get lucky and are vigorous into old age, many others aren’t.

Generally, by the time people reach their 80s, muscle mass decreases, and so do strength and endurance. Hearing and vision loss are other factors that affect around 43% of the population.

Most elderly powerful business people, though, have no intention of abdicating if they don’t have to. And that may be the smartest decision they ever make, according to many gerontologists. In fact, hanging on to a job full of responsibilities and challenges may be the best thing for an executive’s health, says a report from Cleveland Clinic’s centre for geriatric medicine.

“In order to age successfully, you have to have cognitive challenges,” it says. “You have to have social engagement, so you’re with peers and have meaningful activities.” In other words, when it comes to ageing and retirement, there are no rules.

The writer is Group Editor, Special Projects & Features, The Indian Express

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