As Baby Boomers approach retirement age, it's only natural that members of this generation should stop and reflect on what they have contributed to society—individually, collectively and in their careers—and where they can possibly go from here.
As a Professor of Physical Therapy and Director of the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse's Clinical Education program, Gwyneth Straker is as close to the top of her profession as she feels she's going to get—at least without expending more time and energy than she's willing to give at this point.
At 60, she's also feeling both the pull of retirement and the pressure to keep going for as long as possible—something that is driven both by financial concerns (her 401(k) took the same hit as everyone else's recently) and by her desire to keep mental deterioration at bay by remaining active and involved.
"I was planning to retire two years ago," Straker says, but now acknowledges that she's looking at "at least another six years, if not eight," in the workforce. Not only that, but "I'm working longer and harder than I ever have, and if you factor in inflation I'm making less than I did ten years ago," she says.
The one consolation for Straker is that she's reached a point in her career where her skills and knowledge are in huge demand, prompting her to consider a switch into the consulting world: something that likely resonates with many workers in her age group.
"Ideally, I'd like to do around 12 to 15 hours per week," says Straker, envisioning a future in which she parlays her experience into conducting workshops, seminars, and on-site evaluations. Not that the remainder of her time would be spent idly; an active participant in her church, she says she'd like to do more service-oriented work. Anything, in fact, that will keep her busy. "We know so much more than our parents did about how keeping active helps prevent Alzheimer's and dementia," she says. "I can't imagine retiring just to spend more time in the garden."
In addition to success, Straker has enjoyed something in her career that many younger workers will likely never experience: the stability of having had one employer over most of the last two decades. However, even that has come at a cost, she says—something that she puts down to a trait instilled within her generation.
"We grew up believing that if you were loyal to your employer, they'd show you loyalty in return. That's a stark contrast to what I'm seeing in these times. It doesn't feel like there's any loyalty any more."
That last point, she says, goes for Gen X and Y workers, as well as for employers, resulting in a change in attitudes among workers that she's been happy to see: "The younger generation have a threshold where they say 'I'm not going to do that.' That's something I admire."
As a member of the first wave of female employees who entered the workforce on a theoretically equal footing with her male counterparts, Straker says she struggled over the course of her working life to strike the proper balance between working and raising a family, and with the added pressure of "having more than our parents had"—a phenomenon she characterizes as the Boomer generation "getting sidetracked by greed." That, plus the concept of loyalty to employers has left her feeling like her generation "did it," when it came to balancing priorities, "but at a price we didn't know we were going to pay."
For each member of the Boomer generation, that price will obviously be different, but for Straker hers is clear: "I've sacrificed my own professional goals—and to some extent my personal ones—to meet the needs of my employer. That was a mistake that I don't think this generation will make."
"We set out to change the world with grand plans," she says of her the Boomers—comparing it to what she sees as the "pragmatism" of X and Yers—"and I still think in those terms." With that in mind—and an increasing number of Boomers looking to extend their stay in the workforce and still seeking to take their careers in new directions it's entirely possible that there's another act yet to come from her generation.
For information on consulting as a career choice—whatever stage you're at—click here.
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Phil Stott is a writer and web producer at Vault.com, the Web’s most comprehensive resource for career management and job search intelligence. Vault provides top talent with the insider information they need to make critical career decisions.
Watch "Tom Brokaw Reports: Boomer$!", Thursday, March 4 at 9pm ET on CNBC. The program will also air Saturday, March 6 at 7pm ET; Sunday, March 7th at 9pm ET; and Monday, March 8th at 8pm ET.