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What a jazz master can teach us about getting older

Posted by BJ Roche  February 21, 2011 04:45 PM

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The recent issue of Money Whys, the newsletter from Vanguard, the financial services company, Stan Hinden, 83, author of How to Retire Happy: The 12 Most Important Decisions You Must Make Before You Retire, talks about what he wishes he had done differently in his own retirement.

Hinden's advice: buy an annuity, budget better, and this: work until you are 70.

That last part is problematic for a number of reasons. If you don't have a job and you've been reading stories like this, you are probably wondering who will hire you to work until you are 70.

If you have a job, and you're verklempt at the thought of working until 70, imagine how your younger co-workers feel. It means that your office will remain occupied until they are nearly as old as you are now. Because you may think of yourself as the smartest person in the place, other people's new ideas will go unexecuted. We're talking Prince Charles syndrome here.

The topic of the baby boomers who won't go away is likely to get more discussion in the coming years, because we didn't save enough early enough, our spouses don't want us at home all day, or because, well, who's better at any given task than us?

It's already percolating in a lot of workplaces. Younger friends tell me about leaving jobs after getting tired of butting up against "old people who just don't get it." Another mentions being in a meeting in which someone proposed a new reality show called "Haven't They Retired Yet?"

I can hear the intro now: "Tonight on 'Haven't They Retired Yet?' A marketing VP with 30 years experience holds forth in a meeting about the silliness of the name, Twitter!"

It's a subtext of Douglas Alden Warshaw's terrific piece in this month's Fortune magazine about the way Conan O'Brien used social media to build a comeback.

This piece makes you wonder about the wisdom of NBC's decision to bring back Jay Leno. And it makes you marvel at O'Brien's success in going around what marketers would call "an aging brand." (See above, about younger friends leaving jobs.)

Like millions of other Americans, Conan O'Brien's life has been disrupted by the digital world, and he's been forced to reinvent himself. YouTube, TiVo (TIVO), Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms have greatly diminished the cultural relevance of The Tonight Show, whose overall audience has shrunk 44%, from 5.6 million a night to 3.9 million, over the past five years, and whose key 18- to-49 demographic has shrunk from 2.4 million to 1.4 million during that time. O'Brien had worked his whole professional life with one goal in mind, to get to host The Tonight Show, and he got there, but he was born 10 years too late for it to really matter. Accidentally, however, he's learned how to innovate and make the Conan brand mean even more than The Tonight Show brand to a young, passionate, and growing audience.

A few weeks ago we went to see jazz saxophonist Charles Lloyd perform at UMass. Lloyd, who is 72, seemed a little unsteady at first. In fact, I was a little worried: "What's his lung capacity?" I whispered to my husband. "Jeez, what were we thinking, coming to see an old man play the sax?"

But play he did - on his own, but also as part of a quartet that included a pianist, bass player, and drummer - each of whom was half his age. It was a fantastic evening, in which an old master introduced his audience to some hot young players. They mixed it up: he'd give them a riff, they'd play with it, toss it around to one another, and then back to him.

At the end of the show, they exited the stage, the young guys gently putting their hands on Lloyd's shoulder as they walked off. Here's what I took away: if you're going to stick around that long, pass along the wisdom, share the power, and encourage those coming up behind you.

Then get the heck off the stage. The audience will cheer, not because they're glad to see you go, but because you're a class act.

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About the author

BJ Roche is a writer and teacher who lives in Western Massachusetts. She’s a senior lecturer in the Journalism Program at UMass Amherst, where she teaches writing, new media and More »

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