It's a life, not a ladder

career ladder

On Tuesday, Fidelity Investments offered buyouts to employees who are at least 55 years old. The Wall Street Journal reported that the packages offer “associates who are considering the next phase of their life a generous financial package”. These packages can range from “six months of salary to more than two years” and “18 months of health-care coverage”.

It’s quite generous, even thoughtful, to respond to those older workers who would like to move on to other opportunities, isn’t it? Yet I can’t help feeling overwhelmingly distressed about it.

On the one hand, there’s the story of my friend Julia, who planned for a real estate career after General Mills, and was more than willing to be part of their cost reduction efforts. She’s a savvy woman, who saw the writing on the wall and chose to make the proverbial lemonade. She seems quite happy.

On the other hand, there’s the story of my former colleague Steve, who elected early retirement from Kimberly-Clark. He’s an enthusiastic sort of person, simultaneously cynical and optimistically moving forward with a renewed focus on a lifelong sideline of writing. But it is so clear that he misses it. The work, the camaraderie, the routine of it all. Oh, and the money.

Then there’s the story of my friend Holly, who along with her husband, moves from one low-paying job to another, long ago abandoning the notion of career. It’s all about family and making ends meet, trusting that God will provide. I asked her recently if she thought her parents – when they were in their 50s - knew anyone in their circle who found themselves looking for a new job. She stared at me, as if I’d hit upon a profound truth about what’s really changed for our generation. Nearly every family we know has been affected by job loss after age 50 – in fact it’s hard to think of a family that hasn’t.

The notion of a career ladder is pervasive and insidious at the same time. Over time, an individual builds skills and experiences that lead to increased income and opportunity. A tidy and predictable straight line graph. Except that life is not like that at all. We fall in and out of love, maybe get married, perhaps have children. We suffer illness, care for others, experience loss. And sometimes we love to travel and accumulate those frequent flier miles…while other times we can’t possibly be away from home. Our relationship with work is no different at all – we are the same situational human beings across all dimensions of our lives.

Imagine a world where employers and employees could have a completely transparent conversation about life and work. Where there are years when we are 150% committed and capable, some years we are productive but in more of a holding pattern, and other years where 50% seems far more reasonable than the alternatives. And both employer and employee abandon the ladder and its pay scale in favor of a more life-like approach.

There are growing signals of change: phased-in retirement, flexible work programs. Yet the unspoken assumption that we will have our highest contribution and our highest income in our final year of work is perpetuating the Fidelity-like programs we are all too familiar with. And also, I understand, a slew of employment law issues designed with the ladder in mind.

It’s a life, not a ladder, and it’s not working. Talk about an interesting design-thinking challenge – sign me up to develop a more human-centered approach.