Fans of "Parks and Recreation" will recognize Gerry Gergich, the department's oldest employee who retired only to be voted in as mayor of Pawnee, Indiana. Talk about staying mentally agile. (Photo courtesy of NBC.)
My dad is nearing retirement. So it's not unusual that during his annual review, when his boss asked, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” his response was “Not here.”
I’m not saying my dad has the same senioritis that’s currently making it very difficult for the class of 2015 to care about anything but graduation, but he’s definitely on the cusp of checking out. It’s clear whenever we talk about his work — he’s looking forward to ending the travel, client meetings and proposals.
This might be why I was particularly interested in a study republished by Science Daily in January that examined how engaging, stimulating activities affect the brain even after employees earn their gold watch and move on.
Dad: If you read this, my apologies for thinking of you when I saw a study about “aging brains.”
Learning leaders spend a lot of time talking about millennials and how to make sure they glean the right knowledge they need from departing baby boomers. But older employees shouldn’t be off their development radar; what they do now to promote engagement and learning can actually stay with employees into their 80s and 90s.
Jennifer Lodi-Smith, an assistant professor of psychology at Canisius College who worked on the study, found that social and challenging experiences — for example, a digital photography class for computer novices — have a far greater impact on the brain’s cognitive abilities than just doing a Sudoku puzzle at home with nothing but “Jeopardy” host Alex Trebek to keep you company.
Now she’s moved on to look at what happens to self-identity as people age, a hot topic especially for newly minted retirees who are at risk of losing sight of who they are when they’re not punching into a job every day. She’s currently examining the data, but so far says it’s clear: People who stay engaged with their passions, regardless of physical health, have better self-identity and self-esteem.
But actively seeking out social and challenging experiences doesn’t happen overnight.
“I think this is an essential piece to planning retirement,” Lodi-Smith said. “There’s so much talk about being set financially, but we also have to know what we’re going to do and what has meaning to us.”
Learning leaders can help toinstill a habit of prioritizing passions. Have a 50-something employee who wants to know more about web design? Include them in a training session that challenges them to learn advanced HTML coding.
Or kill two learning priorities with one mentorship. Lodi-Smith said retirement can be particularly difficult for those who love their jobs and include them as part of their identities. For example, “I am an accountant.” Well, as of your 65th birthday, not so much. Consider setting up a mentor relationship with your devoted retirees so they can transfer their knowledge to the younger set and stay social and engaged in what they love.
“Have that social outlet to keep people engaged and invested, particularly if it is a job that’s been a career,” Lodi-Smith said. “Help them stay involved and use their expertise. Organizations don’t want to lose that human capital and years of expertise that the employer has helped build.”
For others, like my dad, who aren’t as gung-ho about staying in their industry, second jobs can keep an aging brain growing and developing, Lodi-Smith said. Learning leaders should prepare to deliver learning to post-retirement employees who have taken on jobs that play off their passions.
So again, Dad: If you’re reading this, consider revising your answer during next year’s review to “I’ll be working as the wine guy at Trader Joe’s.” Your brain will thank you for it later.