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EDITORIAL COMMENTS: The second half of your life

March 1, 2011
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Almost half - 47 percent - of ISHN readers are between ages 50-59, according to our 27th annual “White Paper” reader research conducted in September, 2010. Hello, AARP® benefits. You know, there’s a reason the organization no longer goes by the American Association of Retired Persons - who retires anymore? Especially in their 50s? Hedge fund managers, Silicon Valley inventors, Alex Rodriquez, OK maybe. Another 16 percent of readers are over age 60, meaning almost two-thirds (63 percent) of you reading this magazine are age 50+ and have 30 to 40 years experience.

What to do with all that savvy, all those war wounds?

Says one good old boy from Louisiana: “Over the years I’ve been hired, fired, left a job because of bosses who were clueless, went to jobs with a strong safety program only to find that half of those were hiding some problems. I’ve been involved with safety since about 1961. I’m one of those who, years ago, decided this was my life, my career, and my calling. There’s damned few of us around nowadays that are willing to fight the good fight.”

This old boy’s still got some fight left in him. “I’m still working part-time. I do the technical writing for the fellow I turned my consultancy over to. I do the work in my home office, take my time and generally get it right.”

Faded finish line

Knowledge workers such as safety professionals are never really “finished,” as physically and mentally exhausting blue collar work will retire a man after 40 years, wrote management genius and self-described “social ecologist” Peter Drucker in his book, “The Essential Drucker.”

But Drucker added this caveat: “Forty or fifty years in the same kind of work (say safety management) is much too long for most people. They deteriorate (from all the fighting), get bored (by all the recordkeeping and compliance chores), lose all joy in their work (44 percent of readers say work hours will increase in 2011; 50 percent say job-related stress will increase), “retire on the job” (NIOSH calls it presentism: the lights are on but no one is home) and become a burden to themselves (depressed) and to everyone around them (coworkers, family, fishing buddies, golf partners).”

Now you might call some of these symptoms your stereotypical midlife crisis. Drucker, though, isn’t buying that. “It is mostly boredom,” he wrote. “At age forty-five most executives have reached the peak of their business career and know it. They are good at their jobs. But few are learning anything anymore, few are contributing anything anymore, and few expect the job again to become a challenge and a satisfaction.” This is borne out in our reader research. Of pros age 50-59, 54 percent say the level of satisfaction with their work will remain the same in 2011. Fifty-six percent say the level of their effectiveness will stay the same. Can you say “maintenance mode”? Job satisfaction and effectiveness in 2011 will increase for about a third of pros, and decrease for one in ten.

"A deadly bore"

Most mid-life pros, also known as baby boomer pros, I think can relate to Drucker’s words: “…the original work that was so challenging when the knowledge worker was thirty has become a deadly bore when the knowledge worker is fifty - and still he or she is likely to face another fifteen if not another twenty years of work.”

Maybe this explains pros clock-watching while accompanying OSHA inspectors on an audit, or yawning over another recordkeeping interpretation, or restlessly toe-tapping at their 127th hazcom refresher class. Drucker (1909 – 2005) might have been the original proponent of taking personal responsibility for branding oneself, “You, Inc.” Of course much goes into this career-long branding process, said Drucker: “The knowledge worker, first of all, is expected to get the right things done. Éffectiveness is a habit built on a complex of practices. The effective person focuses on contributions. Knowledge workers who do not ask themselves, ‘What can I contribute?’ are not only likely to aim too low, they are likely to aim at the wrong thing.” And so we have the legacy of OSHA compliance cops, contributing nothing but compliance to the organization. Their aim is low, misplaced, and their “brand” suffers for it.

Branding yourself calls for managing yourself. Drucker was emphatic about the necessity to manage oneself. He advised: Know your strengths, improve your strengths. Where is arrogance (“I can recite OSHA rules in my sleep”) causing disabling ignorance, (“My company’s strategic plan, what strategic plan?”) What are your values? Drucker as a young and successful investment banker in London in the mid-1930s did not see himself making a contribution. So he quit. “People, I realized, were my values,” he wrote.

Drucker sounds like many safety pros I know. It’s not about the bucks. Forty-three percent of our readers will have an income of between $50,000 to $80,000 in 2011, according to our research.

If you fit our reader research demographic profile, what are you going to do with the second half of your life?

Concluding chapters

Drucker offered three alternatives when you reach the point that your house is empty, your kids are gone, you need income and you need something challenging. 1) Start a second and different career. 2) Develop a parallel career. Keep working, full or part-time, at your old job, and create a parallel job: consulting is an obvious avenue. 3) Be a social entrepreneur and channel your knowledge into a new start-up.

People who want to make something (that contribution thing again) of the second half of their life will be the few and the bold, to paraphrase Drucker. Most, he said, will “retire on the job, continue being bored, keeping on with their routine, and counting the years to the move to Vegas, Sedona, or Sanibel Island. (Full disclosure: I do know some professionals on Sanibel Island who haven’t cashed it in.)

Drucker the social ecologist was spot on when he said, “In a knowledge society we expect everyone to be a ‘success’.” Say hello to “American Idol,” “Survivor,” youth sports and SAT scores. If that’s the case, Drucker said it’s all the more important to cultivate your second half in a way that allows you “to continue to make a contribution, make a difference, and seize opportunities to be a leader, to be respected, to be a success.” Of course Drucker was an outlier, very much in the minority in this regard. No Arizona sunsets or 19th watering hole for him. He wrote 39 books, including 9 in the last decade of his life, taught his last class at 92, and consulted well into his mid-90s.

So for the many of you staring at the second half of your life, in or out of safety, how do you define success?

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