Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Like John Quincy Adams, Taking a Demotion and Working During the 'Retirement Years'

New York Times columnist John Tierney has written several recent columns on raising the minimum retirement age under Social Security. Today, expanding on that theme, he suggests that older workers should be willing to accept lower-paying, lower-responsibility positions while remaining in the work force. He points to John Quincy Adams, our sixth president, who had an illustrious career in Congress, from age 63 to age 80.

As was true of an earlier Tierney column on Social Security, blogger and law professor Ann Althouse linked to it, tossed in a few cents of her own, and has since let the comments roll in. An interesting discussion has ensued and is worth a look.

Intrigued by Tierney's use of Adams in his piece, I made the following comment:
We had dinner last evening with a couple we got to know when our children were classmates in high school.

We had lots to talk about, including the birth of their first grandchild, the impending births of two more grandchildren for them, and the wedding this past weekend of our daughter.

Toward the end of the meal,my friend made a short and unassuming announcement: He's retiring after forty years as an engineer with Ford. While there had been some thought that with all the shuffling happening at Ford, this might be a possibility, my wife and I were a bit taken aback. (I'm at least fourteen years away from "retirement age," by the way. So, it's coming as a bit of a shock when I hear from my friends that they're retiring.)

As we discussed our friend's retirement, happening next week, he made it clear that his plans include taking a job, as well as travel and learning to play the piano.

He's probably a good example of what Tierney calls "The Adams Principle."

Speaking of Adams, he was undoubtedly more temperamentally well-suited to his years as a congressman from Massachusetts, at the end of his life, than he had ever been for the presidency. Adams was always, to put it charitably, a curmudgeon. A man of towering intellect and no mean skills as a writer and lecturer, he would probably have been well-suited to academia. He was by experience and interest, even more gifted as a diplomat, somehow more able to compromise and strike deals with foreign nations than with his own nation's Congress and other political leaders. But from an early age, he was molded for and encouraged to take up a career in politics, especially by his mother.

Some consider him the best and most effective Secretary of State in our country's history, a contention with which I have little argument. It was a post in which he was able, particularly owing to the tenor of the times, to combine his greatest attributes: that of the academic of extraordinary intellect and that of the diplomat.

In terms of legislative accomplishment, Adams' time in Congress is somewhat undistinguished. But it was a good use of his skills as a propagandist.

Perhaps a corollary of Tierney's Adams Principle then, is that often in retirement, people feel the freedom to pursue their passionate interests in ways they had not before. For the Average Jean or Joe, the constraints of mortgages, kids' educations, health care, and insurance often dictate certain career paths which, in the absence of such constraints, they would have left behind. I myself am contemplating doing graduate work and at retirement age, offering my services to a college somewhere. With extended life expectancies, the post-retirement years can be among the most rewarding and useful of our lives.

By the way, Tierney might as well have called his notion, "The Carter Principle," for another man probably ill-suited to the presidency, but who has had a multitude of useful and interesting careers since the people retired him back in 1980.

I realize of course, that some people's options at retirement may be limited. They may have physical limitations or not have the opportunities for training that I have had. I nonetheless feel that an incremental increase in the minimum retirement age is warranted by current and projected life expectancy increases.
One commenter, Dave Friedman, wondered whether older workers would be willing to be supervised by people younger than themselves. I made this observation:

As to Dave's concern that older workers might blanche at taking orders from people younger than themselves, this may be true for some older folks.

But I have a sneaking suspicion that one group of older workers might welcome this scenario: Those who have been leaders themselves.

I have been a leader in my work for more than twenty years. It has suited me psychologically and spiritually, particularly because I don't take myself very seriously and I wear leadership lightly. But because of this experience, I don't feel the need to be in charge that I may have felt when I was a younger person trying to prove myself. I actually enjoy being in situations in which I'm not expected to be the leader.

On top of that, leaders understand how good it is to work with cooperative people and most resolve that if they ever are in situations in which others are in charge, they will cooperate with them.

Those most likely to chafe under the direction of younger supervisors, I think, are those who never had the opportunity or never possessed the facility for leadership themselves.

Still, the experience of employers seems to be that they like older workers, who tend to be much more reliable and surprisingly flexible.
I suggest going to Althouse's site for the entire interesting--and expanding--discussion. But for now, I'm going to finish my lunch and get on with the rest of my work day.

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