Tuesday, April 3, 2012
Making Room for the Next Person
There was a story in the paper the other day that Warren Buffett’s company held its annual meeting and decided against the process of starting on a succession plan. Warren’s only 81, so I guess he figures he has plenty of time.
It did get me thinking about two things: My cousin Bill, and my early days at the newspaper. Bill, who was about 25 years older than me, worked for the Orange County sheriff’s department for a quarter century and at the end was head of jail operations. But that was never his goal in life. His goal was to spend more time retired than he spent working.
Having a government job (in law enforcement, no less) he was able to do that. In all his time at the sheriff’s office, he never took a day of sick leave. Not one. The day he became eligible he cashed in 25 years of unused sick leave, filed for retirement and never looked back. He and his wife, Donna, did a lot of traveling in their RV and enjoyed it very much. He died in his sleep just short of his 76th birthday, shortly after achieving his goal.
When I started work at the newspaper, I figured I’d be there a couple of years and move on. But I liked the town, liked the paper and its culture, and was in love with a local woman who wanted to stay in the area. All that made staying a consideration — but only if there was reasonable prospect of advancement.
At the time, most companies had mandatory retirement at the age of 65, so I did the math. The editor, Frank F. Orr, was born in 1914 and would have to leave in 1979. Ward Bushee, the managing editor and Frank’s likely successor, was born in February 1923 and would have to leave in early 1988, just before my 38th birthday. That would make me the right age to be editor, and I set about to make myself worthy of the hire.
Congress repealed mandatory retirement in 1978, and Frank Orr decided to stay on. He made it five more years before dying with his boots on at the age of 70, a casualty of years of smoking Pall Malls (unfiltered!). With his passing, Ward took over for four years, staying one longer than planned to straighten out a few problems he didn’t want to leave to his successor, who turned out to be me.
Ward was just shy of 66 when he left, and I’m grateful he gave me the chance. He wasn’t yet 70 when I left the paper, owing to changes in the corporate culture, so if he’d worked that long, my time would have passed.
One of the ominous trends I see in the workplace is the insidious damage to human and corporate capital that is going to be caused by more people working longer — not because they want to, but because they have to. It’s one thing to keep going forever when you’re the boss and can call the shots, but even in those cases people often (more often than they, themselves, realize) stop learning and get stale.
But how about the employee in the early 60s, who reached his or her top level 15-20 years ago, and has to keep working eight to ten more years? Back in the day, they would have been out with a watch and a cake at 65; now, I fear, more will find themselves fired late in life, needing work, and being unable to get it. Working longer may make Social Security more sustainable, but at what cost in human misery?