Should I Stay, Or Should I Go?

JoAnne Norton
JoAnne Norton

My nearly ninety-seven year old mother-in-law has an intriguing quote displayed prominently on her refrigerator at her home in Calgary. “One of life’s most important decisions is when to begin middle age,” it reads. My husband’s young-at-heart mother often reminds me on our evening phone calls that we’re only as young as we feel.

Today we can work as long as we want to, especially if we are blessed with good health, a clear mind, and our own business. But how long should we? That’s one of the many questions members of the senior generation sometimes ponder in the middle of the night and sometimes discuss with their spouses in the middle of the day.

Would the business be better off with or without me, they wonder. Do I continue to add value? Are my ideas still relevant? What if I raise the subject of my retirement and then change my mind about leaving?  How do I deal with the pain in my heart as I consider letting go of something so dear?

The next generation grapples with its own set of challenges. How long can they afford to carry someone who they perceive is no longer pulling their weight? How do they bring up the topic of a parent’s retirement without sounding ungrateful or uncaring? How do they ignore the gnawing in their gut as resentment grows and the silence between the generations becomes deafening?

The good news is that we’re living longer, we’re staying healthier, and we’re looking better than at any other time in history. So we must now wrestle with the question of when or even if to begin a new chapter away from work—a better chapter than our parents and grandparents have ever had the opportunity to write. This is new stuff for both generations, and we’re short on role models, experience, and theories.

Barbara Walters was still working at age 84, but could we? Should we? In a family business both generations need to have candid discussions periodically at both the family and the board levels regarding retirement. The decision about when a parent should move on drastically depends on the industry as well as the desires of both generations for the future.

Sometimes these conversations are already taking place, not with family members in the senior generation who are mulling over what they might do next, but among frustrated future owners. Whether they are thinking about grandparenting, golfing, starting a charity, or beginning to play Chopsticks it is crucial for parents to share their plans, so their adult children can make theirs. Both generations will be much more open to this discussion if it is approached with patience, appreciation, and love.

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