August 7, 2013

Going Feral: A Boomer’s Advice for the ‘New’ Retirement

Affluent ex-professor tells how his fellow boomers can quit while they’re ahead and move into a productive second phase

A retired Penn State professor’s resignation letter has relevance to advisors and their clients. A retired Penn State professor’s resignation letter has relevance to advisors and their clients.

Resignation letters, especially from teachers, are becoming a genre unto themselves and not infrequently go viral. Perhaps it is because they give voice to some deep sentiments that are true but impolitic to state until after one has tendered one’s resignation.

A new entertainingly written contribution to this burgeoning field of literature, a blog post by Penn State political science professor Philip Schrodt, has particular relevance to financial advisors as a case study in what the new retirement looks like, or could look like, for affluent boomer clients.

Schrodt’s post is not only going viral but is specifically counseling “going feral” — the post’s title — as a life and career move for late middle-age professionals.

Going feral is shorthand for neither retiring nor staying on as a tired, timeserving, tenured salary collector of declining relevance — or as Schrodt puts it in announcing his move to full-time consulting: “I’ve left to pursue other opportunities and get my fat Boomer butt out of the way.”

The lengthy but fun-to-read post essentially argues that boomers, by delaying retirement for longer stretches, are blocking the progress of young people struggling to ignite their careers while failing to use this stage of life to explore other opportunities.

“Why give up a sinecure that pays three or four times the median income and if you just want to do absolute minimum — and plenty of Boomers do — involves maybe 10 hours a week, if that?” Schrodt asks, noting that he is not leaving because of poor health or an inability to perform his job at a high level.

Rather, the reasons to go feral include quitting while you’re ahead. Schrodt points to one colleague who died three weeks after retiring but thinks boomers who stay on thinking retirement will hasten their demise are making a mistake. “Even Pope Benedict decided to retire when he didn’t have the strength to do the job well.”

And he says of his own aging: “The exhaustion following a three-hour class is physically painful; and waking up at 5 a.m. thinking about what needs to done for a class the next day is no longer my idea of fun.”

Integrity is another reason for voluntarily discontinuing a long career: “In order to get tenure at any place worth getting tenure, you’ve got to publish garbage can models, and lots of garbage can models, and that is not going to change any time soon.”

And bureaucracy is another—Schrodt describes Penn State as having “a North Korean governance model without the transparency.” He adds that “in any large institution, most of the rules exist to make someone else’s job easier—or CYA.”

The newly free former professor also cites modern advantages that obviate the need to rely on the established institutions that employ boomers: the computing power in his phone alone makes his university unnecessary and he no longer needs to visit the library adjacent his campus office because he can all the reference material he needs free on the Web.

A key argument Schrodt makes concerns the equity of remaining in a professional position that both keeps him from doing things he might otherwise never do while keeping younger people who need the opportunities he is essentially hogging. For example, an academic journal accepting his paper means that it is not publishing the paper of a younger faculty member who needs the credit. What’s more, he finds that most older tenured professors do not contribute significantly to research—only a few outstanding scholars who are “fabulously productive” and with whom it is hard to compete.

Finally, Schrodt points to the cynicism that occurs “when you find yourself beginning to feel sympathetic with many of the stereotypical negative things people say about academia,” describing the transience and irrelevance of various trendy ideas.

His advice to his fellow place-holding boomers: “It’s a magical world: let’s go exploring.”

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