My Grandpa Lou was a hell of a guy. World War II vet, parent, grandparent, sardine connoisseur. And he was a rock star at the company where he worked as a tool and die maker his entire career. He retired at 65, and my family members still own many of the company shares he retired with.
My buddy Francis is one of the best people you'll ever meet. Quick-witted, kind, thoughtful, and brilliant enough to make partner at a white-shoe law firm in his early 30s. He doesn't love his job but he does it to provide for his family. He lives conservatively and wants to "make as much money as quickly as possible" to retire early and enjoy life.
Another friend Joe is one of those people that knows everybody. You mention his name in conversation and there's a good chance someone knows him. He has overcome a tough childhood to earn multiple Master's degrees and has been successful in every job. He still feels like something is missing and is searching for The Job that will fulfill him. He plans to find his calling, which may be something abroad, and work until well past traditional retirement age.
Grandpa Lou was part of the Old Retirement, where retirements peaked around age 65. Francis and Joe are part of the New Retirement, which will have two peaks: one around age 50 and another around age 75.
A few forces are at play causing this shift in retirement: company loyalty, technology, and the search for fulfillment.
For most of the postwar 20th century, companies took care of employees like Grandpa Lou. Show up on time, work 40 hours, stay loyal to the company, and retire with a nice pension. Employees were grateful for a job, and employers rewarded their dedication.
Nowadays, few (if any) private companies offer pensions, and many public pensions are suffering well-documented funding shortfalls. Companies attempt to stay lean and often view employees as overhead costs to be minimized rather than human resources to nurture. This change has made employment a transactional relationship rather than a symbiotic relationship where the company rewards employees for their contributions.
It's no wonder executive pay has skyrocketed relative to the average employee. Minimizing costs to drive quarterly profits tends to thrill the compensation committee of boards of directors.
Intensifying the transactional nature of work is that employees are expected to be available outside of 8-5. Grandpa Lou finished his work when he left the shop. He could enjoy his family, the investing club, and tinkering in the basement without notifications stealing his attention.
Nowadays, how many of us check work email right before going to bed and first thing after the alarm goes off? Work takes more of our waking lives than it used to and weaves into our most important relationships. Especially post-Covid, the lines of work life and personal life are blurred.
It's easier to survive a mediocre job when you have free time to do the things you enjoy. It's harder when your boss can text you during Thursday dart night with friends (ask me how I know. And shout-out to The Dartmen).
These forces -- the changing loyalty of companies and the always-on nature of work -- have pushed people to view work as more than just income. Jobs aren't just something you do to support your needs. They now play a meaningful role in people’s lives and can be a major source of fulfillment.
For some, fulfillment means a long career doing something they love. "Follow your passion" is often derided as backward advice that leads to liberal arts degrees. In reality, it's the way for some people to thrive in a career that will consume most of their waking hours.
Which is how Joe views his career.
For others, fulfillment means earning as much money as possible to fund pursuits outside of a career. If the company takes advantage of you, you might as well take advantage of them and maximize your income to fund an early retirement.
Which is how Francis views his career.
As retirement shifts from Old Retirement to New Retirement, fulfillment will become the primary indicator of a successful career.
Grandpa Lou left behind shares from his company as evidence of a successful career.
My hope is that Francis and Joe will leave behind memories of fulfilled lives as evidence of their successful careers.