Learning > Inspiration

Retire? No thanks, they're back at school

Stanford programme lets older execs explore new life options

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The Straits Times on 25 Mar 2017

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WASHINGTON • As senior vice-president for HP's laser jet business unit, Mr Pradeep Jotwani put in 70-hour workweeks and travelled tens of thousands of kilometres each year, leaving him little time for anything else.

 

So when he turned 60 two years ago, he was ready to wrap up his 28-year career at the technology company. Yet, he dreaded the thought of retiring.

 

Then, he heard about Stanford University's Distinguished Careers Institute (DCI), which offers a year-long programme for executives and professionals mostly in their 50s and 60s who, like him, grapple with what to do after ending successful careers.

 

In January last year, he began attending classes and seminars at the university, as part of a group of 25 DCI fellows, who each paid US$65,000 (S$91,000).

 

"I'm a closet nerd, and I always wanted to go back to school and learn new things - plus I got to be with people my age who want nothing to do with retirement," said Mr Jotwani.

 

"We were all in exploration mode, trying to figure out what we wanted to do next, and we had the chance to share that journey."

 

BACK TO SCHOOL FOR CENTENARIANS

 

Fifty years from now, no one's going to think of universities as places just for people in their teens and 20s. If you're going to live to 100 or older, you're probably going to have to return to school several times as an adult to learn what's new.

 

MS LAURA CARSTENSEN, director of Stanford University's Centre on Longevity, with which the Distinguished Careers Institute is affiliated.

 

It is like an older person's version of a gap year. Just as some young students take a break before starting undergraduate or graduate studies, more and more baby boomers want to return to school after making a mark in their chosen profession.

 

Many want to gain knowledge in subjects that they did not study earlier or that did not exist when they were in college. And they hope a break from the work they have done for two or three decades will help them find new directions.

 

Dr Phil Pizzo, the 71-year-old paediatric oncologist and former dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine who conceived and launched the DCI programme in 2014, embraces the "gap year" label.

 

"Moving from middle to older age is a gigantic transition, especially because people approaching traditional retirement age want to keep contributing and working in different ways and don't want to be isolated," he said.

 

Dr Pizzo hopes DCI will spur other colleges to offer similar programmes, especially ones that are less costly and are available to more people. Some universities might offer two-month summer programmes or weekend courses scattered across an academic year.

 

"Fifty years from now, no one's going to think of universities as places just for people in their teens and 20s," said Dr Laura Carstensen, the director of Stanford's Centre on Longevity, with which DCI is affiliated.

 

"If you're going to live to 100 or older, you're probably going to have to return to school several times as an adult to learn what's new."

 

Colleges that allow older adults to audit courses typically require them to only listen and not participate. At Stanford, most professors encourage DCI fellows to join in the discussions.

 

Current fellow Mary Ittelson, who heads Ittelson Consulting, a Chicago firm that advises arts organisations, wondered if she should "hold back" when she enrolled in a course on women poets that about a dozen undergraduates had signed up for.

 

But she was encouraged to participate, and "the discussions we have in class are so stimulating, they're continuing when we meet on campus", said Ms Ittelson, 60.

 

She found out about DCI on an airplane, when she and the man seated next to her talked about their colleges, and she said she was jealous of undergraduates.

 

"It turned out he was on DCI's advisory committee, and when he told me about the programme, I said: 'That's my dream'. "

 

For 63-year-old Susan Wilner Golden, who slowed down her career as a venture capitalist when she was in her 40s and 50s to raise two daughters and care for her mother, the programme has been a bridge back to full-time work.

 

"I reset my clock. I feel like I'm 30 now," she said.

 

BLOOMBERG

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.