No more Freedom 55: Why Millennials are increasingly considering mid-career breaks

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In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, a series of Canadian television commercials featured people suddenly transported to an exotic location with their future self who had managed to achieve retirement by the age of 55.

The reality over the intervening years, however, has not been the same as in those idealistic commercials. Statistics Canada has found that over the last decade, the average age of retirement has climbed from 61 to 63. Ten years ago, fewer than 1 in 13 Canadians worked past the age of 65 while today, it’s one in eight. The most recent Sun Life Unretirement Index (2015) shows that for the first time, more Canadians expect to be working at the age of 66 than those who expect to be retired.

Millennials are as divided as previous generations about retirement – with 33 percent planning to retire between 65 and 69, and 10% saying they will likely “work until they die” — according to a survey of 19,000 Millennials globally by employment firm Manpower Group. The same survey, however, showed tremendous agreement among this emerging demographic about an alternative to Freedom 55: with four in 10 Millennials saying they plan to take significant breaks for relaxation, travel or vacations and 84% putting leisure and personal wellbeing at the forefront of their career plans.

This doesn’t mean Millennials are the slackers they are reputed to be: the report found that the demographic was working statistically as hard (if not harder) than older generations. But, as the Manpower survey reported, “Millennials prioritize three things when choosing where and how they work: money, security and time off. They want to be rewarded for their effort, feel secure in their employment and still have the freedom to stop and refuel once in a while.” We decided to look at this mid-career break phenomenon and to see to what extent it is happening in the nonprofit sector.

The shift from “Freedom 55” to “working until I die”

For many, working into traditional retirement years has become a financial necessity. The 2008 financial crisis saw many near-retirement Boomers lose substantial savings and have to remain in the work force in order to afford to eventually retire. The increasingly high cost of housing and soaring personal debt-loads add to this financial burden.

Fewer Canadians enjoy the protection of a pension plan, and this may be especially true in the nonprofit sector. In 2012, senior citizen association Nova Scotia Community Links, published a report, Age Friendly Workplaces in the Nonprofit Sector, that found that, in Nova Scotia, 65% of nonprofit employers didn’t offer pension plans. The Broadbent Institute recently found that retirement savings for Canadians without employer pensions are “wholly inadequate”.

One Millennial nonprofit professional put it this way, “I doubt I will ever have enough money to retire. It's not a mindset — it's lack of income (or an employer that doesn't offer any sort of assistance with a retirement fund).” Another says, “I am 32 and it's definitely affecting both my thinking about my employer and staying in the sector. It's hard because you love what you do...but then you realize that if you want to take responsibility for your family or at least not be a burden on society you need to earn more so you can put it away. I'm not talking about luxuries— I’m pretty sure most of us can be very resourceful and frugal — but more about more basic levels of income for savings.”

But, while financial concerns are very real, The Unretirement Index also observed another interesting factor: while 59% of Canadians expect to be working past 65 because of necessity, 41% plan to work do so primarily by choice. According to another nonprofit professional we spoke with, “Pursuing work we care about might be a lot more interesting than retiring for a less adventurous life than we've been part of.”

Mid-career breaks

Another factor is at play in the shift from the traditional employment model to what the Manpower survey calls “careers in waves with changing paths, pace and regular breaks.” Nancy Ingram, president of the consulting firm Foot in the Door says, “Security that existed even ten years ago doesn’t exist now, except in organizations that are unionized. More people work on renewable contracts and jobs are more temporary.” Few younger (or older) employees in any sector have an expectation of remaining in a particular job or single organization throughout their careers.

This leads many people to develop what Alan Kearns, head coach at career counselling firm Career Joy, calls a “portfolio career.” Kearns explains, “People haven’t seen employer loyalty so they don’t think of themselves in a long-term relationship with an employer. Instead they think intentionally, asking themselves: what do I want for my life and how does my career align with that?”

As part of this portfolio career, Ingram says that many Millennials are “capitalizing on gaps purposefully”. Nonprofit strategist and researcher Trina Isakson says of these gaps, “This time is often spent looking for new work but it also allows people to take breaks in a way they might not have thought of before or otherwise.” Isakson, who has taken several four- to six-month breaks in her own career to travel, work and volunteer in other countries, says, “This is not always a life choice but it’s a question of making the best of the opportunity.”

Millennial nonprofit professional Jennifer McRae had spent seven years building leadership development programs for young changemakers in the Vancouver area when “circumstances aligned” personally and professionally so that she could plan a break in her career. “I had built three strong programs, had accomplished what I wanted to accomplish, and had come to the end of a particular work cycle. I was also quite burned out. I wanted to step back, recalibrate and think about the next phase of my work.”

McRae spent three months in different locations in South America, volunteering, reading, writing and reflecting, before returning to a new location and new work with Simon Fraser University’s community economic development program.

Even among her nonprofit peers, McRae’s experience was not unique: three friends separately embarked on similar breaks at about the same time.

Other factors at play

As McRae’s story indicates, there are more factors at play than simply economic ones.

Self care and balance: Studies show that increasingly Millennial women across sectors are reporting higher levels of burnout than their male peers or their older colleagues. It is speculated that this is due to an interplay of extreme connectivity, unclear career paths, role overload connected with gender socialization theory, and self-imposed expectations. Taking midcareer breaks allows people to reset the balance in their lives: one person’s plans include: travel, homesteading, renovations, hobbies, and “checking off some bucket list stuff” while one of Ingram’s clients negotiated time off from her employer in order to write a book.

Health: While many people’s expectations about delaying retirement are predicated on the idea that “70 is the new 60”, for people with health conditions, retirement may be too far away. One nonprofit staffer says, “My husband and I both have MS and there is a pretty good chance that we'll both have a higher level of disability than we currently do when we're older. We'd love to take our children and live abroad for a year or two. We're working towards doing that.”

Older partner and other time limits: One Millennial nonprofit professional says, “My spouse is older than me by a fair margin; if we wait for me to reach retirement age before we ‘enjoy’ our time, he might be gone.” Other Millennials anticipate taking breaks to care for aging parents or to spend time with older family members while they still can.

Reinvention of self: “Early in your career is the time to test-drive a range of industries and roles because the opportunity costs of switching positions are lowest,” advises Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO of career re-entry firm iLaunch, while Holly Bull, president of gap year consultancy Center for Interim Programs, says, “Gap options provide landing pads and a way to test the waters without making a full commitment to another job”.

Do good work better: When McRae and her friends first discussed “stepping out of their lives” years before taking a break, one key factor was that it would serve their work. McRae explains, “My experience in our sector is that people are brilliant and in it for all the right reasons, but we’re often pretty frantic and reactive. It’s difficult to learn, grow and do high quality work without reflection and strategic thinking. Our organizations and the people we collaborate and work with are better served when we can ask tough questions about who we are and how we show up, and how we could show up differently. That’s what my ‘sabbatical’ allowed me to do.”

How to plan for such a break?

“A lot of people will have an opinion but you have to make decisions based on what drives and motivates you both personally and professionally,” says Kearns. “Ask yourself: would you rather have tried it or not?” Isakson agrees, “It comes down to priorities — for some priorities of travel and overseas experience isn’t high on list. It also has to do with people’s comfort level with financial instability.”

While many people use existing gaps between contract positions as opportunities for breaks, others go to their employers and explain their desire to take time off. In such cases, Ingram advises, “Be really clear on your negotiating power: you have no legs in negotiation if your performance is questionable. You also need to look honestly at your organization’s financial situation and the likelihood of contract renewal.” Ingram also advises that timing matters: “It’s probably not feasible in the middle of a program cycle. Choose a time when the project cycle is low.”

Nonprofit employers may welcome this request as an opportunity. “Nonprofits can offer this as a non-financial benefit to keep an employee they want to retain,” says Ingram. Paul Payne, managing director of UK-based recruitment firm OneWay, notes sabbaticals can be a retention tool. Ingram advises employees to keep an open dialogue with their employer about their goals and how the organization can support them. Having an employee take a leave of absence can also ease a nonprofit organization’s finances if the funding model or granting cycle has gaps in it.

Some organizations, however, will not be open to allowing staff to take time off, or cannot guarantee a job upon return. While McRae felt comfortable with her network of relationships and the reasonable likelihood that there would be work for her when she returned from her break, she says, “I had to prepare myself that there was a possibility I would have to work in a restaurant when I came back.”

There are also practical considerations. While some younger people may have fewer financial or relational obligations than older colleagues, that is not universally true. Isakson says, “I have a mortgage so it's not simply a question of giving up an apartment. I rent my home out when I travel.” At the same time, Isakson says, “There are ways and destinations to make travel cheaper.” While McRae says “the biggest things that hold a person in place weren’t a factor for me” in her recent break, she hopes in the future to integrate breaks with family and says, “This could look like staying in place but having a couple of months to recharge and rest outside of my career.”

How to explain such a break

“In our culture,” McRae says, “we equate worth with productivity. When I returned from my time away, I felt as though I had to justify why I was gone, and I defended myself as if I was being critiqued.” In reality, she observes, “Concerns about gaps in resume come more from corporate culture — all I’ve seen in nonprofits is that this is valued and positive.”

How you talk about your time off is important, says Kearns, who cautions, “You can’t control other people’s perception of your experience, but you can control how you describe your experience and your thinking.” He adds, “Talk about your experiences in terms of self-development and skill development and make it tangible and of benefit to the organization.”

When it comes to what future employers think, Kearns says, “If an employer isn’t comfortable with a gap on your resume because of a planned leave, you need to consider what it would be like to work for that employer.” Isakson agrees: “Some prospective employers may see time away as an enriching experience and that it demonstrates flexibility and adaptability, while others may see such a person as flighty or uncommitted to a job. It may come down to fit. For someone who has taken time off to travel, the best fit would be an employer who values international experience, travel and self-reflection.”

While none of the 500 people interviewed for a book on taking career breaks regretted the decision to take a break and instead found that their careers were enhanced, McRae recognizes that not everyone’s life circumstances allow for career breaks. However, it is possible, she observes, for everyone to take small breaks and to set boundaries that allow even a bit of this reflection and recharging in everyday life.

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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