The right time to quit your job 92



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You like your job – but is it time to move on? More people in their 50s and 60s are delaying their retirement. They’ve heard the message about working longer. But how long is too long? Is staying in one job for 30 years long enough? What about 42 years in the same university department, as is the case with an academic I know? With no legal retirement age in Australia, you literally can work in the one place till you drop. But some people who’ve saved enough might be better off quitting on their own terms while respected, healthy, and able to explore other possibilities.

The resignation of John Bell as artistic director of the Bell Shakespeare Company he founded 25 years ago spurred my thinking about the right time to retire. He’ll be 75 by the time he bows out next year. At the same time, another veteran of the Sydney theatre scene, Sandra Bates, announced that she, too, would retire after 30 years at the helm of the Ensemble Theatre. It’s not easy to leave a job you like. And you can hear their ambivalence. “I have to say there is a degree of reluctance because I so enjoy it,” Bates told the Sydney Morning Herald, adding that macular degeneration was the main reason for leaving. And Bell, referring to his offsider who’ll be taking over, said: “Peter [Evans] probably can’t wait for me to get out the door”.

It’s a tricky issue. Even to question whether some older workers hang on too long can sound ageist. Over years, older workers have been blamed for hogging the jobs, and reducing the opportunities of the young. Some European countries have provided early retirement programs in an effort to soak up the huge numbers of unemployed young people. And if Australia’s 13 per cent unemployment rate among 15-24 year-olds persists, the younger generations here may mount the same arguments for early rather than delayed retirement. The arguments are wrong. Study after study has discredited the theory that older workers “crowd out” the young from jobs. Rather, the economies which are best at retaining older workers also are best at employing the young. A growing economy creates opportunities for all ages.

While that’s true on the economy-wide level, at the level of a particular firm or institution the story may be different. Opportunities for a young person may open up only when an older one retires. Universities are classic cases of limited full-time positions and a long list of young aspirants stuck for years in low-paid, casual tutoring work. The ABC is another case. To be a presenter on ABC radio, especially Radio National, is a rare and precious prize, and no wonder those who win it hold on for a quarter century or more.

I speak with experience of “hanging on”, having written a weekly column (among reporting duties) for the Sydney Morning Herald for about two decades. What a job! But I held it too long, attached to having a public platform, status, routine, and to be honest, fear. What else could I be good at? Ironically when I took redundancy (with dozens of older hands) two years ago, I was replaced not by a younger or new voice, but by voices of experience and stature. Moving on does not always guarantee the young get a go, and nor should it if they don’t yet have what it takes. Overall, however, more young people at the newspaper seized the chance to move into senior jobs, and the balance of young to older shifted. In such re-structures there are wins and losses: the dead wood goes but also the sharp, wise and ageless heads.

How is it possible to assess if it’s time to go? If you ask yourself whether you’re coasting, or still one of the sharp, ageless ones will you give yourself an honest answer? Patricia Shaw, director of career transitions at Audrey Page and Associates, told me: “If you’re no longer curious, interested, enlivened by your work that’s probably the strongest signal it’s time to go. You have to ask yourself ‘Does my job still bring challenges and rewards? Am I still the very best person to be doing this job?’”

A 65-year-old friend who’s a medical specialist told me he would ask his colleagues to tell him when he was no longer at the top of his game. But Patricia Shaw said often colleagues and even bosses can be reluctant to have such difficult conversations out of respect or even legal considerations. “The signals can be very subtle,” she said. Peter Black, a certified retirement coach, told me the external signals can include being overlooked for promotion, and lack of respect from younger colleagues. “Obviously health problems are a signal, and a reluctance to embrace change,” he said.

If we lived in a less ageist world, it would be easier for older workers to change jobs or careers. It’s not age that’s the problem here; it’s getting stale. In a new environment, many would flourish and make an enormous contribution. They love working. But most employers are yet to see the light. Stale or not, it’s worth examining how you might replace the good things your job provides. Even former Prime Minister John Howard, who hung on too long and ended up ignominiously losing his seat in the 2007 election, has since written two books and appears to have made a purposeful new life.

Am I being ageist? Or is knowing when to leave a job important? Please comment.

Adele Horin

Adele Horin was a journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald for nearly two decades. She reported on a range of social issues, from child care to aged care, and wrote a weekly column. She then wrote a blog called Coming of Age about baby boomers. She tackled subjects as diverse as the love/hate relationship with her Seniors Card, sibling rivalry over elderly parents and their money, suing nursing homes, and how not to dress like an invisible woman. As a baby boomer she lived through most of the subjects she's written about, including when to cut your adult children off the financial drip. Her blog can be found at

  1. I quit my long time job for various reasons and moved. I have however applied for over forty jobs in the past month to no avail. Some I have been qualified for, some I have had experience in, some wanted no experience and some I was more than qualified for. I received emails from over half to say I would here from them shortly, but most did not get back to me after the initial email. The few I got interviews for, I never heard from again. I have checked and double checked and am doing all the right things. Even the employment agencies agree that it is more than likely my age stopping me from obtaining work. Very frustrating…… I am older than some but not incapable.

  2. I loved my job but retired at 62 because there were other things I wanted to do. I have not regretted my decision. Not only did I leave my job, I also left the country town where I had lived for 30 years and moved to a unit in the city. My days are full with volunteer work, book groups, travel and I have not missed my full time job. I do work on a contract basis for a few weeks a year to keep my brain active and to continue to travel overseas. I recommend this provided it is financially possible.

  3. I took early retirement at 55 and David Jones were glad to see the back of me as I was the union delegate and took no nonsense from management. So much so I took the whole staff out on strike and we were out for ten days. Proud to say we won the argument after being up before the industrial commission. Everyone who knows me knows I am pretty placid but deep down, I’m a fighter.

  4. My situation is the same as Fran Spears but I don’t even get interviews. Even Centerlink said my age is against me.

  5. In desperation I’m starting my own business ………that way I can tell the boss to “get stuffed” on a regular basis and still be able to turn up for work the next day without toooooo many repercussions!!

  6. I retired last year aged 66..would have stayed longer..BUT…
    As a bedside nurse, l found it hard on my own body dealing with grossly overweight patients.

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