When to Retire?


Ross A. Webber,
Emeritus Professor of Management

Confucius once advised, "Find work that you love and you will never need to work again." In my academic career I certainly found work that I loved so why stop? Since compulsory retirement was eliminated, one really can't be forced out. So why retire? And I didn't, for a while.

An old cliché about teaching features a silver-haired Mr. Chips sitting on a raised stool in front of his class lecturing from a script to his enraptured pupils. It certainly doesn't pertain to a contemporary university class. I was in the pit of an amphitheater with students behind tables surrounding me on three sides. To keep their attention I had to stay on my feet continuously moving around the classroom to get in their faces and generate debate. For each class I had to carry hundreds of pages of handouts and overhead copies to be distributed to the students. And the classrooms were always in buildings other than where my office was located - and usually on a floor without an elevator. Surely, it was no country for old men.

In addition, I simply had to read The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Philadelphia Inquirer every morning before class. It would have been too embarrassing to be unaware of some relevant development. Although I truly love sports, when I began to read the sports pages first and procrastinate on the business section, I knew it was time to think about leaving.

Many evenings during my teaching career ended with my sitting up in bed reading student papers and memorizing the student bio-picture cards so I would be able to call on them by name on the morrow (students are insulted if you don't know their names - and I usually had almost 200 per semester). It just got harder to stay awake unless I turned on David Letterman whom, thankfully, my wife also enjoyed.

Most fundamentally, I just couldn't force myself to read the critical professional journals. I could get through the popular like Fortune or Business Week, but the rigorous Administrative Science Quarterly became impossible. It was time to go.

Perhaps the student coup de grace, however, were the skeptical student comments about my teaching. As I had gained more visibility and some degree of renown as an academic leader, management consultant, corporate director and vice chairman, I would increasingly draw on these experiences to illustrate academic theories. To my surprise, some students on the confidential course questionnaires accused me of being a "name-dropping egocentric," and even "an egomaniac" for talking about my personal experiences. Perhaps I was turning into a boastful old man. I didn't think so, but maybe...

After moving to emeritus status, I taught part time in an evening program for working professionals for six years. The students were primarily technically trained scientists and engineers, many working for the region's health care and pharmaceutical industries. Some were reaching senior technical positions and wanted to develop themselves for managerial responsibilities. Working with them was one of my most satisfying teaching experiences. They were genuinely interested in the human dimensions of organizational life – certainly more than my previous undergraduate and MBA students who were focused on finance and numbers. They voiced none of the criticisms that my last MBA students had so I ended on a high note. I even won a teaching award in my penultimate year.

I never visualized retirement as a dramatic end of one's stressful life and the beginning of perfect leisure. Ideally, the transition should be gradual, a shifting of time priorities from vocation to serious avocation, an avocation started long before age 70, 65, or 62. When I "retired" at 72, I had already taken many fine arts courses at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and been painting for thirty years.

During a certain time period in my life, I became the object of multiple searches for Deanships and Presidencies. It was certainly flattering and I enjoyed the recruiting visits and interviews. I always found Penn to be the more attractive institution. At one point, however, uncertain whether I should leave full time teaching and research, I consulted an older colleague who had become a Dean. He told me that it depended on whether I wanted "to be" or "to do." In his opinion, as a school dean or president, one primarily is in a state of "being" that conveys status and power (however moderate it is in academia). But administrative demands make it very difficult to continue meaningful research, writing or teaching. It becomes too difficult "to do" anything. If "doing" is one’s primary ambition, better to stay out of administration.

Fortunately, I ignored my colleague's advice and became a university vice president. As I look back on my time in senior management, it is not the power or status that I remember (although I was the only university official with an office wet bar!). Rather it is walking around the campus and seeing the buildings for which I raised money, or seeing the displayed pictures of faculty members whose endowed chairs came from people I had cultivated. These live on.

Finally, Confucius was a bit misleading. If one finds work that one loves, you can't stop. In my case, writing is an imperative that demands attention. And even if one doesn't call it "work," it is challenging and exhausting. When fully engaged, I still wake up several times each night to jot down ideas in my bedside journal. I hope that you also will find an activity in retirement that keeps you awake at night - but not too often.