As part of our series on patterns of working, I recently read a feature on www.quillette.com entitled ‘I retired first’, written by Gregory J Beaupre. Gregory talked about his elongated degree programme together with the multiple gap years he took and likened them to retiring first. He references a mind-opening book by Rich Karlgaard called Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement. Karlgaard puts forward a convincing argument for not rushing into a fast-track career:
We must stop excessively glorifying precocious achievement [the wunderkind ideal] and seeing human development as a “fast track” on-ramp for early success. Not only is it unjust to the majority of us, it’s profoundly inhumane. It ignores the natural-born gifts that we all possess. It cuts off paths of discovery for our more latent or later-blooming gifts and passions. It trivializes the value of character, experience, empathy, wisdom, reliability, tenacity, and a host of other admirable qualities that make us successful and fulfilled. And it undercuts the majority of us who are potential late bloomers.
Our brains are constantly forming neural networks and patterns—recognition capabilities that we didn’t have in our youth when we had blazing synaptic horsepower. As we get older, we develop new skills and refine others, including social awareness, emotional regulation, empathy, humor, listening, risk-reward calibration, and adaptive intelligence… abilities we acquire up until the end of our lives.Rich Karlgaard
This feels all the more relevant given the mental health crisis we are currently facing and especially with the younger generation. So much pressure is put on teenagers with our examination process and focus on top grades, then the expectation in their 20s is that they work hard and long hours to prove their abilities and climb the career ladder. All at a time of life when they should be opening the minds, developing their characters, exploring what really motivates them and finding the career that they love – I’ve always believed that you need to love your job as you’re a long time working – each day, month, year and lifetime, so it’s important you find the right one.
Now Gregory is at the other end of the spectrum, in his 60s, a stage when culture traditionally expects us to ‘retire’. I’ve never believed in what I call the ‘R’ word, because it’s simply not what I witness. I see amazing people in their 60s, 70s, 80s who still have real purpose, bring pleasure to those around them and contribute massively to the workplace and society. Many have changed careers, started their own businesses, or have continued in a field they love. I much prefer the ‘F’ word – freedom and flexibility to follow your passions.
To quote Gregory:
Folks in their 60s like me (and well beyond) can perform their work—writing, woodworking, scientific research, songwriting, consulting, practicing law, designing, entrepreneurial pursuits and on and on—at their highest level ever during these years. And “highest level” means more productive, innovative, collaborative, knowledgeable, wise, and creative than most younger people in the same positions.Gregory J Beaupre.
This all made me think about two potentially massive changes for how businesses should be thinking about career paths. We should be providing the younger generation with space and time to explore options and fully develop before pushing them to climb the ladder, and we should value the experience and expertise our older generation can give.
I particularly liked one except from Karlgaard’s book as it backs up what I jokingly say about my loss of memory and liken it to an old computer which takes a little bit of time to retrieve data.
As we age, we collect and store information. That, and not a “fuzzy memory,” is part of the reason it takes us longer to recall certain facts. We simply have more things to remember. Older people have vastly more information in their brains than young people do, so retrieving it naturally takes longer. In addition, the quality of the information in older people’s brains is more nuanced. While younger people excel in tests of cognitive speed, one study found, older people show “greater sensitivity to fine-grained differences.”Rich Karlgaard
What Karlgaard is speaking to is the unfairness and incorrectness of what our cultural expectations demand of our paths forward for our teens, twenty-somethings and beyond.
For the unfortunate majority our latent skills are neither discovered nor recognized nor encouraged until much later, if ever. As a result, most of us are falsely labeled as having less talent or ambition; we’re written off as lazy or apathetic. But in reality, the light simply isn’t shining on [young people’s] true abilities, on the things [they] can do uniquely well. The toxic combination of early pressure and conformity is turning us into machines.Rich Karlgaard
So businesses should embrace the Late Bloomers – whatever stage in life – and ensure they are given equal opportunity and recognition.