What is to become of us – we who have given our best, but who now have reached an age where we cannot easily say that our best is yet to come? What is to become of us whose best will also now be judged by those who were not there when it was our time to shine, and who care more about what is to come?
Our businesses have had our energy, creativity and effort. We have missed school plays, interrupted our family holidays and messed up anniversaries and birthdays for long forgotten and inconsequential projects. We are the ones who chose to disappoint those we love, rather than disappoint our employers and colleagues. We have stayed late to perfect the PowerPoint slides that no-one else will read with the same care and attention. We have accepted the Sunday night flight to be at the regional sales conference on Monday morning and we have been a cheerleader for every new strategy, initiative and product announcement by each and every average Chief Executive we have served under.
What is to become of us? We who have given our best, but still have a decade or more of career to run? Are we just a hollowed out, spent force? Have we run out of usefulness? What is left for us?
The workplace environment is adapting all the time, sometimes brilliantly, to the need for flexible working and family friendly thoughtfulness. We encourage shared parental leave and want people to be mindful of their mental health and well-being; but what do we do with people who no longer quite fit the HR developmental curve, the scorecard template, or the perception of what high performance means?
How do we reconnect people who we know may be disconnecting? Is there an inevitable end that just means cliched conversations, awkward meetings and hollow “we are sorry to let you go” pro-forma letters?
If we are truly concerned for well-being, flexible working and family orientated balance in our workplaces, this is one of the under-explored, poorly described and rather hidden “too-difficult-to-solve” issues of our times.
I have long held the view that one of the first conversations we should have with every new recruit is to discuss with them how they want to leave. No employer can promise a job for life, or planned promotions or continuous advancement; but every employer can promise to create an environment in which individuals can thrive and where their potential will be recognised, appreciated and, if at all possible, realised. The obvious point is that a new recruit will one day leave and in leaving the promise should be that their CV will look even more impressive for their time in the company they have just joined.
But what about people in their fifties and sixties? What is the promise for these colleagues? Are they just to shuffle off? Or do we plan with them the most elegant, thoughtful and inspiring “glide path” we can?
Poor mental health, as we all recognise, is not something that only afflicts those without income or housing or access to health care. If we take away the social network of work, imply or even explicitly question whether a contribution is worthwhile; exclude people from planning conversations and future developments – I am certain we impact that person’s confidence, sense of self-worth and well-being.
For this group, let us start the conversation as early as possible; a conversation about a future apart, but a future we are all contributing to.
A conversation to explore the fact that one day we will all leave. So how would we like to leave? What can we do in the coming years to make our third act as healthy, enjoyable, fulfilling, ambitious and rewarding as we would like? What might be the flexibility we need now that will help us going forward? What can we do to help equip ourselves with the skills, experiences and networks that will be relevant now and for our future? And, crucially, what can we you do for our businesses and colleagues as well…?
Let me pause on that last point of “what can we do for our businesses and colleagues?”
…for in this group are the men and women with stories to tell and experiences to share. They have the wisdom of past successes and some less successful things too. Men and women who have experienced life, and loss, who know the balance they did not enjoy and who can encourage the next generation to take even more care. Men and women who may have been disadvantaged, even discriminated against, but who can at least provide the narrative for why we must never go back to less enlightened ways.
In our midst, right now, will be the people who were the champions and trailblazers, pathfinders and fighters for a better world, our world. Let us not let them leave with the memory of a disorientating and disrespectful exit. Let us learn their stories before it is too late and learn how to be better for their wisdom.
We should learn to do this well before it is our turn to be remembered only for our grey hair and creaking joints, rather than our contribution over decades, including our sacrifices, triumphs and breakthroughs.
We are all passing through, but those who leave before we do, deserve as much care as the most talented joiners coming in behind us. We are all passing through. It is the human thing to do.