Will you really have to retire at 50? Not if you're smart about marketing and repackaging your skills

July 11, 2016 | Phil Fersht


I think I just read one of the most (brutally) honest and practical articles by a guy called Len Kendall, an LA-based marketing executive with a clear penchant for writing. His piece is based on two premises:

  1. The market no longer allows for employing older workers who deserve higher salaries
  2. Technology is killing jobs at a very fast pace that will only continue to accelerate

OK – we all kind of know this.  But where this gets interesting is where the discussion shifts to what he constitutes “expensive” workers. 

"Thanks to advancements in technology, jobs are becoming more automated. Assuming that we can eventually automate all basic jobs and allow artificial intelligence to conduct more skilled work, there will only be a need for a small group of educated, experienced, but inexpensive workers."

So what counts as “expensive” workers?

  • Group A – low-skilled, but still expensive.  Large populations of low-skilled workers (varying in age) who require lots of benefits. Companies will look to replace groups of ten or even hundreds of people with one computer to reduce costs.  This is the premise behind the new HfS Future Workforce Impact Model, where we expect to see a reduction of a third of low-skilled positions over the next five years in the US in IT/BPO services jobs – an even greater proportion that what we anticipate in India.  The cost of healthcare alone in the US can be as high $20,000 per employee per year, not even taking into about wages, payroll tax and other benefits.
  • Group B – medium-skilled 20- to 50-year-olds, still needed to manage people and technology.  These are the mid-career people who have the expertise and experience to manage people and machines. These people command a spectrum of salaries but are willing and able to work efficiently relative to their compensation expectations. They’re still "expensive," but the ROI remains palatable, since machines cannot run completely independently or manage people…yet.  This is where we anticipate new work and job creation at HfS (7% in the US and 14% in India, for example), as many enterprises need high-energy, “affordable” creative talent that can apply technological change to business model change.
  • Group C - 50+ year olds who are extremely skilled and experienced workers. They can effectively manage people and machines but require very high salaries. Often, due to realities of aging, they cannot operate at same levels of efficiency as Group A or B. This makes them “expensive”. However, as the emergence of digital business models continues apace, this group is moving further and further out of touch with the evolving needs of the business.  Being able to compensate very experienced people at the $250K+ salary level will fast become a fading practice, especially if (and when) we reach an economic downturn.

Group A is under serious threat as our automation impact model suggests, Group B is where we anticipate further job creation, and Group C could likely get completely eliminated – and could happen alarmingly quickly.  As Len points out:

 "During the Industrial Revolution, millions of jobs were eliminated because of machines or development of new products that made others obsolete. The difference between the technological advancements of the industrial revolution versus those of today is that half or more of all future product and service needs won't be replaced by humans but by computers. Some may argue that we'll create more jobs to replace those lost, but the last ten years are a clear indication that computation and automation are advancing faster than the invention of new products or industries that require (human) labor”.

As our HfS model has indicated for the services industry, we expect a 7% growth in mid-high skilled job needs in the US, which culminates on a 12% overall decline in IT/BPO services jobs.  So in an industry which has technology and labor skills at its core, automation of low-skilled work is outpacing the growth of medium/high skilled work.

The Bottom Line: Preparing for the future if you’re too "expensive" to be employed

If you’re clinging on to that fat paycheck and can see the writing on the wall in your enterprise, then you need to be smart and get ahead of what could happen to you. There’s nothing more frustrating for me than to see highly-experienced executives coming onto the workplace whose salary demands to support their lifestyles are turning off many potential employers.  What’s more challenging for the Group C-ers is the desire of forward-thinking employers to hire people who can embrace ambiguity and less structured environments in order to drive innovative business models and understand how to act on data more effectively.  This means that executives who’ve been superb at doing specific things in specific ways for many years for one company are likely to be irrelevant to other employers, unless those skills are clearly transferrable, or those specific things provided a real competitive edge to the new employer.  So, while you may not be employable anymore from a cost standpoint, you can certainly make yourself financially viable for future work.

Here are some ideas to add to your future financial viability:

Start developing your marketable skills now that you can sell them in the future.  Smart employers love being able to hire contract talent for specific tasks – especially on an outcomes basis. However, this will mean a willingness to roll up your sleeves to do work tasks you probably have delegated for the least decade or two. For example, you might have very strong communications skills, and could be great at proofing market collateral, sales pitches, white papers, executive blogs etc.  There is good money to be made renting out hour creative writing skills to senior executives, sales heads, CMOs, CEOs etc.  But you need to get your hands dirty and be prepared to do real work again. You may be a very polished presenter -  so many employers’ today, would love to get their Group B-ers trained to deliver better sales presentations.  Moreover, I keep having enterprise clients complain to be how bad service providers are at selling to them – so why not offer up your services to help them improve their selling techniques and “listening” skills etc?  And you've likely lived through years of change and staff mentoring, so why not offer yourself up to support change management workshops or reorientation / Design Thinking programs. Use those skills and experience to become a great student teacher! 

Avoid burnout and prepare for a new financial structure in your life.  Len does a very admirable job advising people post 50 how to be smarter with their money.  I am not a financial advisor, but I would say that we need to be realistic about our earning potential, as our careers advance. If you want to command serious wages post 50, then you either need to be in a very safe position in your current company, or you need to be smart about how you manage your work/life balance, as you may be working well into your 70s these days. You have a great deal of experience and knowledge to offer, but most companies, today, just don’t want to pay the 300k+/year salaries to enjoy your delights.  And even if you are a great survivor, the chances are your company will find ways to wind down your gargantuan salary over the next 3-5 years – and they will burn you out in the process - it's going to be miserable. So be realistic, figure out how best to go independent as an expert contributor / consultant, or even stay with your current employer on a part-time status where you can do some extra curricular things to to up your salary if you need the extra money. Many employers increasingly love experienced folks as part-time employees - they get the expertise they really want and feel like they get real value for money from them. 

So focus on your lifestyle a bit more – how can you early $150K a year for the next 20 years and enjoy your life, than giving yourself a heart attack trying to survive the next few years of disruptive hell and our legacy business attempt to drag themselves out of the Dark Ages?  The business world is changing and that fat salaried job for life is really fast slipping away... so be realistic, become a student again if you have to!

Posted in: Design ThinkingHR Strategy

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1 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Doug Chapman
    Posted Jul 11, 2016 12:14 AM | Permalink Reply

    Love this post, Phil.

    You offer genuine advice an ideas as opposed to the doom and gloom the other guy pointed out! I agree, there are so many ways of adding value to the workplace post 50 - you just need to be smart about it and lessen your expectations. Focus on lifestyle and health is so important,

    Doug

  2. Jennifer
    Posted Jul 11, 2016 04:11 AM | Permalink Reply

    Phil -

    This is such a thoughtful article. You tackle the tough issues well and offer some great advice for folks struggling to think ahead. It's not all about full time jobs these days!

    Jennifer

  3. Raghu Srinivasan
    Posted Jul 12, 2016 03:06 PM | Permalink Reply

    Great article Phil!

    Life does not end at 50!! Reinventing oneself at 50 is the key to a successful, healthy, purposeful, life ahead.

    Raghu

  4. Sanat Sethi
    Posted Jul 13, 2016 08:07 AM | Permalink Reply

    Great read Phil!

    I like your suggestions for Group C. As you mentioned, it's not their skills that will be obsolete, but rather the nature of employment of experienced professionals. From what I can see, not enough experienced professionals are doing enough to build an online presence that will allow them to market skills they already have.

    "Humans are Underrated" (by Geoff Colvin) has become my go-to on the topic of modern technological change, and I found your post extra interesting because you made some high-level suggestions more concrete. For example, the book emphasizes that soft skills are going to become some of the most important in the near future, and you discussed how polished professionals can become communication coaches for organizations looking to refine their Group B employees. Great synergy of ideas in my opinion

    I sincerely hope Group C-ers can learn to change how they think about the working world, because they have the opportunity to be invaluable in novel ways in this brave new business world.

    -Sanat

  5. Sid Pai
    Posted Jul 30, 2016 03:50 AM | Permalink Reply

    Phil - great advice - I haven't notched up half a ton - just yet - but have had to reinvent myself many times in the past, so I know what you speak of - and couldn't agree more.

    That said, I do think your advice applies to many folks who find themselves at this tipping point you describe, regardless of how old they actually are. I know many 35 year olds who would benefit from following it!

  6. Len Kendall
    Posted Aug 02, 2016 12:22 PM | Permalink Reply

    Phil thank you for reading and referencing my post.

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