Passion for Working Late

by Jake Trussell, founder and principal, Metabolize

jake graffiti.jpeg

My father makes his living as a painter.

A couple of years ago he began mailing postcards with his original artwork on the front and handwritten poems on the back, to what he calls an “imagined geography” of friends and family. He’d been writing his flavor of cutting, metaphysical social commentary as a daily discipline for a number of years, but had kept it mostly to himself.

That is until this past spring when he published “Sentences”, his first book of poetry, at age 75. 

My mother’s father was an inventor and research scientist at MIT who made artwork on the side. When he retired, he dedicated much of his time to art and writing, and continued to do so until he passed away at 97.

My father and grandfather are not very well known but their passion and productivity as elders is just as inspiring to me as famous artists like Picasso or David Bowie who also continued to produce interesting, creative work right until the end.  

Howell J. Malham Jr.’s recent article “Rock Against Ageism” sparked me to think about the ways in which social norms around age are shifting, and how we might harness elders’ creative passion for the benefit of society.

“Retirement sounds like it would be nice if work had not been enjoyable.”

As Howell points out, the Rolling Stones who originally shaped culture as social deviants in their youth, continue to deviate from social norms today regarding age. Though their music is no longer innovative, Mick Jagger (as a great grandfather just back from heart surgery) still prances around on stage performing thundering concerts for tens of thousands of adoring fans.

It appears as though he and his bandmates no longer think getting old is such a drag. They’ve perpetually threatened to retire but are having too much fun — and generating some serious economic impact — to call it quits.

Retirement sounds like it would be nice if work had not been enjoyable.

Taking cruises, gardening, and spending time with grandchildren sounds great, but the concept of withdrawing from one’s work winds up leaving many people feeling unfulfilled.

“As digital-natives age, they will have spent their whole lives jumping from one project and job to the next and will therefore be comfortable continuing to ‘work’ much later than traditional retirement age.”

After all, to be creative and productive is to be human. In that light, retirement can feel inhumane and antiquated, especially now that the industrial age has shape-shifted into a knowledge economy.

The current framework of education, work and retirement was built for the needs of a time we no longer inhabit, when the industrial paradigm pushed creativity underground and a majority of jobs required repetitive tasks day in and day out for 30 years.

Of course, folks would be eager to retire from that sort of drudgery ASAP.

 But in the new economy, ingenuity, curation and management have moved much farther down the chain of command. Nearly everyone today can and will generate ideas, make things and lead projects. As digital-natives age, they will have spent their whole lives jumping from one project and job to the next and will therefore be comfortable continuing to “work” much later than traditional retirement age.

Meanwhile, there’s vast experience among members of the retirement-age population who want to continue productively contributing to society. How might we harness the energy of folks who are aging out of the workforce due to cost and skillset shifts? 

According to PwC’s Golden Age Index, OECD nations could gain an additional $3.5 trillion in GDP by increasing older worker employment to New Zealand levels where 78% of the population between the ages of 55 and 64 are working (as compared to 62% in the U.S.). The U.S. alone stands to gain $815bn.

The report suggests removing mandatory retirement ages, providing training in new disciplines, offering flexible working policies, and implementing government incentives. We have plenty of problems to solve that could use the power of this population’s wisdom to help strategize change. Not to mention the immense economic benefits their experience and knowledge would bring to the table.

Unfortunately, the machinery of our society has not yet fully shifted gears over to the knowledge economy. Most schools still focus on memorization (i.e. teaching to the test) over curiosity, and we don’t yet fully appreciate and engage the wisdom of retirement-age folks rather than kicking them out of the productivity stream. This would require a kind of deviation from social norms that government institutions and many private companies haven’t wrapped their heads around yet.

There will always be those like my father who are content to focus their passion on art, craft or entrepreneurship rather than joining the workforce, but I do sometimes wonder what would have happened— and what would have been discovered— if my grandfather had been given the opportunity to continue doing research and inventing at MIT.

As more and more baby boomers reach retirement age, perhaps we can look to the Stones as an inspiration when it comes to deviating from the social norms that keep the rest of our elders from rocking on.

Society will be better for it. :: :: ::