Spetner: On relevance and its relationship with our identity

No one wants to be yesterday's news.

I had coffee with an old friend who’s built a remarkable career in the communications field over the past four decades. She told me that after a long and successful tenure in one of the most senior jobs in the business, she’s decided to transition out of the corporate world.

But she’s not retiring. Instead, she’s accepted a full-time role in academia.

I asked her why she made the change.

"Well," she said, "I just turned 67, and I wanted something different, and with less travel."

But why keep working full time? Was it money-driven?

"I worry the most about no longer being relevant," she explained.

When I was born, the average life expectancy in the U.S. was 67 years. That meant most adults would pretty much work until they died. As life expectancy continued to creep up every year, the concept of retirement began to take over our collective imaginations.

When I entered the workforce, the idea was one could work until 65, collect a pension, and take it easy. We’d hopefully have 10 or 15 years to enjoy the grandchildren, play golf, knit, and then die.

Life expectancy now for a college-educated man in the U.S. is 82, and it’s almost 85 for a woman. This means when one reaches 65, they can reasonably expect another two to three decades of active life.

So, not surprisingly, there are millions of people now asking the same question my friend raised over coffee: "How do I stay relevant?"

Relevance is a funny and complicated concept. It’s particularly complicated because the workplace is a difficult environment to grow old in. And for most professionals I know, their job is central to their identity. Thus, relevance is often rooted in our professional persona.

I understand this based on my own experience. When I changed from my corporate job, my biggest worry was I’d become invisible. I worried professionals would no longer return my calls if I wasn’t an EVP at a publicly traded company.

I worried I would bring no value to a conversation, that I would be perceived as yesterday’s news, might slowly fade into obscurity, and would no longer be relevant.

But thankfully that has not been the reality, and I’ve learned a few things along the way. One of the most important and surprising lessons is that how I treated people the past 35 years has turned out to be far more important than any title or position of power I earned.

I’ve been endlessly touched by the number of people who have gone out of their way to return favors or grant me acts of kindness based on some small thing I did on their behalf over the years. Relationships matter.

The second most important revelation was "relevance" is a state of mind. Or better said, it’s worth asking: "Relevant to whom?" We have the ability to determine the meaning of relevance, and it may not all be about our jobs.

In my own case, I had a strong desire to increase relevance within my personal world — family, neighbors, friends, and former colleagues.

I found one of the greatest downsides to a high pressure, 60-hour-a-week job is it leaves you with little energy for the people in your life who arguably need and appreciate you the most. And therein lies the biggest challenge: How do we stay relevant in both worlds?

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