Managing the Future of Your Career: Why Retirement Is Harder Than Ever

We are job-search campaign managers, which means we frequently work with senior leaders who are experts in wearing their public masks of confidence. But often, beneath those veneers is a profound despair.

There are two variations of this despair:

"My college roommate was able to retire at 64. I can't afford to retire. I feel like such a failure. What did I do wrong?"

"I am looking for employment but can't find full-time work. My neighbor flits from full-time job to full-time job. The recruiters are always calling this neighbor. But the recruiters do not return my calls. When I was young, they pursued me. The only opportunities I get are for interim assignments. I must be a failure. What did I do wrong?"

This article is based on interviews with fifty senior executives who have been successful in managing their careers during difficult economic times. These corporate leaders have learned the difficult lesson that success often involves the painful process of unlearning old frames of reference that once worked.

As it turns out, unlearning old ideas that have been successful in the past is often far more difficult than learning new ideas.

What are some of the lessons our leaders had to unlearn on their roads to eventual success? Let's take a look at a few:

Short Job Tenure and Long Middle Age

The individual complaints with which we began this piece are but symptoms of two larger and more well-known trends impacting all who work in developed countries.

The first trend is a shortening of traditional job tenures in line with the collapsing time frames of product life cycles and corporate life cycles.

Technology has been a main driver behind the speeding up of business cycles. What economists call "creative destruction" is taking place at a faster pace, and conscientious, qualified employees are often its victims.

In other words, job tenures within jobs and career tenures within companies are decreasing.

Short job tenures play havoc on retirement savings because retirement savings are founded on slow and consistent contributions. Short job tenures explode that assumption.

At the same time, life spans are increasing. You can thank the same technological factors that contribute to lowering job tenure. The average life span within industrial societies has increased by about 12 years since Social Security was adopted in the U.S.

It is important, however, to remember that this additional 12 years is not an additional 12 years of old age. It is an elongation of middle age. The old career model was based on long job tenure and death within 10-15 years of retirement. The new career model is based on short job tenure and death within 25 years of retirement.

Implication: Do not be critical of yourself if you do not have enough saved for a retirement that will support you for 25 years. It is not your fault. Unlearn your framework for retirement.

The Free Agent Model: Never Valid for All

In the last ten years of the 20th century, economists like Robert Reich and popular business magazines like Business 2.0 began to write about the so-called "Free Agent Nation." Under the free-agent framework, executives have careers that more closely resemble the careers of professional sports stars, who smoothly shift from one major league team to another through the work of third-party agents. In the world of business, agents are often called "retained search executives."

But here's the thing: Professional sports players represent an elite segment of the general population, and within this already elite group, only the top 10-15 percent can count on the free-agent model to work for them.

What happens to the other 85 percent? When their contracts with major league teams are not renewed, it is the beginning of the end of their professional sports careers.

And even for the elite 10-15 percent, free agency will cease to be valid as they age or become injured.

In other words, free agency is valid for a few athletes some of the time and for no athlete all of the time.

Free Agency as a Career Model in Business

Free agency says that winners smoothly move from full-time job to full-time job with the help of recruiters. As in professional sports, free agency works for a small group of leaders some of the time – and it works for all leaders none of them time.

Unless you unlearn the free-agency mindset, you doom yourself to individual feelings of failure. Moving from a "good" corporate job that you were placed in by a recruiter to a "temporary help" role as a consultant or an interim executive can make you feel humiliated as long as you retain that free-agency mindset.

The Case of Jack

There is a new model that can now replace free agency: traversing from full-time assignments or W-2 relationships to project assignments or 1099 relationships and then back again.

Failure to grasp the realities of this traversal can make a complex professional life even more painful. Consider the case of Jack:

Jack was CFO of a company in a declining industry. A larger player acquired Jack's company, and he received a one-year severance agreement as part of his exit package. Jack spent the first nine months aggressively networking for a full-time CFO job in his geographic area while making it clear that an interim or project-oriented role was beneath him. By month ten, Jack became concerned about his family's cash flow. He began looking for interim assignments. Jack found his network unresponsive, and the reason was obvious: He had clearly signaled early in his job search that interim assignments were second choice. Jack is now approaching month 24 with neither employment assignments nor project assignments within reach.

Jack's story is both unhappy and common. It need not have ended this way.

Jack needed to understand and accept that his career may have begun as an employee but it would most certainly end as a consultant. And he is going to have to support himself on consulting earnings once his full-time W-2 period is over.

Should I Go Into Freelance Work?

We tell our clients the question should not be, "Should I go into consulting?" The question should be, "When I go into consulting, will I make enough money?"

Think of today's leaders as managing two distinct professional lives. One life focuses on full-time employment, and the other life focuses on project assignments, also known as interim freelance or consulting assignments.

In a world of short job tenures, even full-time jobs need to be thought of as "assignments," rather than as long-term career slots you will occupy.

Your mission in managing your career is to manage these two professional lives so that you will be successful in both – because you will be careening from one to the other over a period of years.

In the next section of this article, we will address why you need to unlearn the notion of "climbing the ladder" of success.

Maryanne Peabody and Larry Stybel are cofounders of Stybel Peabody, an Arbora Global Company. This article is adapted from their book, Navigating the Waterfall: Your Guide to Job Search and Career Management.