In a key scene in This is 40, Judd Apataw’s most recent film detailing age-related angst, 40-year-old Debbie encounters an older woman who jovially warns her that “one day you’re going to blink and you’ll be 90.” This unhinges Debbie, played by Leslie Mann, who reacts by secretly smoking cigarettes and picking on her husband.
I hate to admit it, but I related to Debbie more than I like and winced with dread at the thought of decades disappearing in the blink of an eye. I constantly worry about not having enough time to hit all my professional goals before it’s too late. This remains a valid concern, especially for women who can still bear children in their 40s – as is the case in the film – but then fall into a downward trajectory in their career just a decade later.
The question remains, why do we continue to perpetuate these ageist stereotypes that professionals come with a best before date? Since Canadians today can expect to live until 81 and one in two babies born this year may potentially live to 100, it’s time to erase this perception that at 65, you’ve hit your professional finish line.
Many preconceived notions need to be examined to make any progress on ageism in the workplace. It’s not only companies but also individuals themselves who hold fast to these outdated notions. According to a Revera report, “ageism is the most tolerated form of social prejudice in Canada.”
As employees approach 65, they receive subtle and not so subtle cues from employers and co-workers that they should consider stopping work, observed Lisa Taylor, president of Challenge Factory, which offers career and talent programs for the 50 plus workforce.
This profoundly impacts not only the individual’s engagement at work – since they are may be biding time until it’s over – but also the company’s corporate culture. It also carries a cost to maintain stagnating employees unsure about their next move.
But retiring from a current role need not mean stepping away from any meaningful contribution to society – or even the same company.
“People in their 60s are feeling like society is ready for them to wind down, to conclude their work just at a time when they are ready to do something new,” observed Ms. Taylor.
It’s not only companies that need to re-examine any inherent misconceptions about employees’ age and abilities, but the individuals.
“So often, it’s the aging employees themselves who believe that they no longer have what it takes to stay in the game and continue to contribute, said New York-based Marci Alboher, vice president of Encore.org and author of The Encore Career Handbook: How to Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life.
For some letting go of the power and prestige that accompanied an executive lifestyle, in favor of a different role remains challenging.
“I’ve talked to so many who have suffered from “PIP” (previously important person) syndrome. It takes a long time to adjust from that and into something that may have great meaning, but may not carry the same perks,” explained Ms. Alboher. This collective adjustment needs to take place, considering that approximately 10,000 Baby Boomers turn 65 every day in the U.S.
On the positive side, Ms. Alboher observes many who embrace these “encore careers” with renewed vigor, especially women who may feel less burdened by children and crave to make up on lost time.
For others, age acts as an inspiration to follow previously unfulfilled passion.
Sherry Robinson left her former role managing small businesses for RBC in Toronto when she turned 55. She recalls coaching her clients to focus on their passion and realized that hers included offering a top-notch customer experience. She opened Spa Sedona in Ajax, Ontario a year later.
“I was getting older and I didn’t want to have regrets of not going after my dream of having my own business,” said Ms. Robinson, now 62.
“It’s a whole new lease on life. I really encourage people not to think about retirement, but think about what you want to do,” she said, adding that the only thing she misses about the bank is her pay cheque.
For some, career reinvention later in life occurs more than once. Karen Laing served in management at Air Canada for over 24 years before becoming an ombudsman in the banking services and investment industry. At 63, Ms. Laing now works as a realtor at Re/Max Hallmark and says she is not interested in retirement anytime soon.
“I love what I do and the thought of just playing has no appeal. I’m grateful for a stimulating and fun third career,” she said.