Geoff Pearman – senior entrepreneur, consultant, trainer, speaker and author – challenges the conventional “linear view of life” and goes as far as to suggest “that retirement is fast becoming an outmoded concept”.
What are your plans for retirement? A question many get asked, but a question fewer are considering.
To elaborate on the “linear view of life”, that Geoff previously stated, it has long been believed that we all follow a loose master plan or lifecycle that goes a bit like this: we get through schooling and adolescence, then move onto tertiary education or training and into adulthood, then we build our careers and/or raise a family until we reach the age of around 65, when we can sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labour.
But times are changing, and society is evolving with it.
“We are living longer and healthier lives,” says Geoff, “the old life maps that guided our parents are no longer relevant. The boomers are doing what they have always done – challenging the norms and charting a new direction.”
Establishing a new direction
Geoff, for any outsider looking in, has had an interesting and diverse career. He started his working life as a carpenter in North Auckland, then after being theologically trained he began a career as a social worker and by the mid-80s he was the South Island training manager for, then, Child Youth and Family (CYF).
In 1995 he was appointed as the director of Continuing and Bridging Education at the University of Canterbury, a position he held for 11 years.
Geoff holds his previous roles in high regard and admits to having very fond memories; but with age came realisation.
“I guess I got to my mid-50s and looking back – it’s something a lot of senior managers experience, but don’t talk about – I was successful on the surface, but underneath I was bored. We look at all these business people and leaders who are growing their business and being successful, but we forget to ask if they’re still stimulated by what they’re doing.”
At the age of 55, Geoff was headhunted and offered a once in a lifetime opportunity in Australia. What he thought was going to be his dream role quickly turned into his worst nightmare, and after five months, he ended up calling it quits.
Geoff was 55 and jobless; not part of the plan. “Thankfully we hadn’t sold the house,” he laughs.
Through networks he landed a role with a government agency back in Christchurch but “surprise, surprise” at the age of 58, with a change of government, he was made redundant.
Society tells us that by that age he should have been thinking about winding down and preparing for retirement after a long successful career — this was the turning point.
For a while Geoff found himself applying unsuccessfully for roles similar to those he had had in the past — not because he wanted them but because, on reflection, he wanted to prove he still had it in him. He gave up trying after being turned down around 15 times; it seems job hunting is one thing that doesn’t get easier with age.
“That got me thinking, why am I beating myself up trying to get a job when what I really could be doing is creating a job? So I set up Partners in Change,” a consultancy business specialising in his firsthand experience – age and work.
At around the same time that his journey with Partners in Change began, Geoff got recruited by CYF again to come in and do their workplace capability strategy. “I did that on the understanding that I could work a compressed working week, alongside of that I could start developing my business.”
His contract with CYF ran out in June 2012 – two years after what he had previously signed up for.
During that time Geoff had endured the earthquakes in Christchurch and had relocated north, with his wife, to Wellington. His business plans remained a priority and with the foundations of Partners in Change laid, he was ready kick it into full swing. So, it was off to Brisbane.
Australia already had a mature understanding of ageing workforce issues, Geoff knew there was great opportunity there to build his business and then he could work his way back to New Zealand.
“The interesting thing is, you don’t get any credit in Australia when you’re coming from New Zealand (business-wise) but you get credit in New Zealand if you’re successful in Australia.
“One of the first companies I did a mature ageing workforce strategy and action plan for was the Commonwealth Bank of Australia; 35,000 employees at the time.”
Impressive, to say the least, and a sure sign he was onto something worthy, his work isn’t limited to large corporate organisations. He has worked with most sectors including small and medium enterprises. This variety of work has strengthened his insights, frameworks and tools to address the challenge of ageing and work thus Partners in change has grown exponentially.
The fact is we are facing the reality of more and more people staying on in the workforce after the age of pension entitlement, and that’s a positive thing for many, and for the economy, he says.
“New Zealand now has the second highest workforce participation rate of people aged over 55 in the OECD. This is often regarded as being positive, as people in work contribute to the economy, pay taxes and have higher levels of disposable income. The Ministry of Social Development has projected that paid work earnings of the 65 plus population will grow from $4.8b in 2016 to over $13.6b by 2041.”
Doing it differently
Currently; more than 165,000 people aged 65 and over are still engaged in the labour market in NZ, according to The Business of Ageing Report, and that number is expected to rise significantly to around 300,000 by 2031.
Geoff knows all the facts and figures off by heart, as he is truly invested and it shows. “BNZ reports that 70 percent of those staying on at work are staying on by choice – because they enjoy what they are doing, they may want a bit more flexibility, but they’re still engaged,” and it’s clear Geoff sits in this category.
“Retirement is not what we want to talk about,” he continues, “and 30 percent, according to BNZ, are staying on through financial necessity, but I see another group that hasn’t been picked up on – I believe some people are staying on due to fear. They are afraid of what life will look like without work, they just keep turning up; they may be disengaged, but they show up.
“Individuals are trying to make sense of this whole new life stage. We have been given an extra 20 years as a result of longevity. Employers are also trying to make sense of it because, hang on, people are not retiring.”
Geoff adds that with people living longer there are also new business opportunities for companies that are not being picked up on.
As the “baby boomer bulge” moves through, followed by declining birth rates, we are going to start to see an increase in skill shortages, says Geoff. “In a sense high immigration over the past decade has masked the trend.”
In support of this global trend, Geoff’s book, Doing it Differently – Life and Work After 50, is not only informative for those experiencing this life stage in their lives, but holds exceptional relevance for employers and workplaces who have ageing staff or are perhaps looking to make their workplaces more inclusive.
Geoff raises an interesting point in that many workplaces are accepting of the need for greater flexibility in the workplace, specifically for young people who want to travel or for parents with child care responsibilities. Admittedly, Geoff sees this as promising, but the same flexibility is not always offered to older employees who want to travel, or for those who need to care for grandchildren or their ageing parents.
Asked how an employer should approach this change, Geoff suggests a couple of starting points. The first thing to do as an employer is to educate yourself. “I always say that employers need to develop an awareness of what’s happening in their workplace, get hold of the facts and challenge some of the common myths about age and work.”
And he cannot stress enough the importance of communication. “Be upfront, talk with your staff in a respectful way as they age at work,” he says. “Employers need to communicate their employee’s worth and remind them that they are valued and have skills that are needed. Have a ‘staying on’ conversation, not a ‘moving on’ conversation.”
Geoff suggests finding out what is important to your mature-aged employees. “We know older workers will often take on what we call ‘stereotype threats’, they internalise the myths that ‘older workers are past it’ and ‘older workers don’t adapt to new technology’ or they are ‘keeping young people out of jobs,” which we know are not true.
Employers need to actually sit down with their older workers and not talk about retirement, because that is not on the agenda for an increasing number, but ask them, ‘what’s your thinking about the next stage of your life, how can this workplace be a good workplace for you, and what would make it good for us?’ None of that is threatening.
“Secondly; embrace flexibility and don’t just assume it’s part time work ageing staff are after. It may be that they’re looking to work from home sometimes because they have responsibilities with the grandchildren, or it might be that they want to rotate to another role or have a gap period. Employers need to be open to job redesign.”
Geoff will continue to run workshops, speak at conferences and contribute thought leadership for the foreseeable future.
He is challenging established norms and in doing so, is paving the road for those who follow. With a thriving consultancy business across two countries, a successful book under his belt and being the prime mover behind Senior Entrepreneurs NZ, Geoff can say as he approaches the age of 67 he is no longer bored and his journey is far from being over