Career Obsolescence – Must It End With A Whimper?

In the 100 years since the end of World War I – Broken bricks wall and landscape. Conceptual composition.the war greatly and foolishly named “The War To End All Wars” – humanity has grappled with the idea of protecting itself from sudden, violent destruction. A nuclear bomb, a terrorist attack, a random industrial accident that renders scores of people dead or forever maimed, these are the things we fear. But this is not the way life ends for many of us. Instead, it is a slow decline, a lingering recognition that time and life are moving by at such an accelerated pace that you only keep up for a while before moving quietly to the side of the road.

And so this is what happens in many careers. I saw this happen with my own father. After decades of effort and devotion he simply became too old and antiquated in the eyes of his leadership. In truth, I’ve seen only a small number of people make it past their mid-60s in any one profession or with any one employer. According to a 2013 report by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) only 14% of surveyed retirees left the workforce after age 65. Many more of them, roughly 47%, said they left the workforce earlier than they had planned.

Fortunately, I’ve met more and more people who are happy to move onto retirement or, more accurately, the chance to do something new. Yet even in those cases, there is a sense that the decision was, in some way, made for them. It’s as if there is an expectation that “older” professionals will move out of the way at some point, typically accompanied by growing career stagnation. Or they find themselves moved from a line position into a “strategy” role with lots of reverence but little teeth.

This is the slow decline, similar to the slow decline the body experiences as part of the aging process. Sometimes this slow career decline is brought on by a change in business direction, forcing the introduction of new products and the new people who understand them. Other times, the decline comes through advancements in efficiency and process that create clear trenches between old and new. As for technology, a traditionally reliable corporate Bogeyman, even Bill Gates proclaimed that scores of jobs will be literally taken over by robots in the coming decades.

Just thinking about a career ending in this fashion is depressing. Must it inevitably end with a whimper, not a glorious bang?

I don’t think so.

Managing the end of a career, or the end of a phase of a career, is the same as managing any transition. You begin by asking questions: Are you aware of what is happening? Are you at peace with it, regardless of circumstance? And, most importantly, are you clear about what you want next?

The painful aspect of any slow decline is seeing it happen but believing there is nothing that can be done. There is always something that can be done, even if that something is simply accepting one is in a new phase; a phase to explore, understand and eventually act within. Action need not be big either. What matters is that one takes some kind of action, some conscious step marking a level of active control. We are most afraid of feeling powerless. Why? Because it feels like a sudden, violent destruction of our professional life. And that feeling overshadows years of success and achievement, no matter how grand or satisfying those years had been.

Whether we face the end of a career as a sudden and violent destruction, a slow and painful decline or a welcome and expected change depends, in large measure, on the insight, acceptance and “stomach” we bring. A career needn’t end with a bang or a whimper. It can end with a gentle transition to what we desire next.















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