Executives Delaying Sunset Years

Poll of senior executives finds many are pushing back their retirements; work ethic, lousy market, to blame.

While advocates for retirees and seniors rail at the suggestion that Congress ought to raise the eligibility age for Social Security, here’s a group that seems willing to keep working well into their golden years.

According to a recently released survey of nearly 2,000 global executives, nearly 44 percent of the respondents said they plan to continue working past the age of 64. In fact, 15 percent of the polled senior executives intend to keep punching the clock past the age of 70.

Granted, senior corporate executives have ample financial incentives to stay on the job. According to the last major compensation survey published by CFO.com (2003), finance chiefs who work at companies with $1 billion or more in revenues pull down, on average, $1.5 million in total direct compensation (including salary, bonus, and exercised options). That’s hardly minimum wage.

In addition, there’s a lot to be said for the corporate lifestyle, which can include trips on private jets, rides in company cars, and lengthy stays in swank hotels. What’s more, executive work can be challenging, invigorating, often involving a great deal of strategizing and project solving. That beats stuffing pimentos into olives as they drone by on an arc tooth conveyor belt.

Still, the results of the survey, which was conducted by executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry, are somewhat surprising. Charles Eldridge, a managing director in Korn/Ferry’s financial officers practice in Atlanta, says the results reflect, in part, changing attitudes about work. “Baby boomers are not looking to retire,” he notes. “It’s not in their DNA.”

The pension plans of baby boomers may be lacking a certain something as well. The market downturn that commenced in 2000 has put a crimp in the retirement plans of many corporate executives. Indeed, the survey found that 62 percent of the respondents said they now plan to work later in life than they thought they would three years ago. The reason? Six out of ten of the respondents believe their employers have inadequate retirement benefits programs. “The shift from options to restricted shares has also hurt executives,” adds Eldridge.

To cushion the blow, many executives are taking on consulting gigs or board jobs after retiring from full-time work. “Instead of leaving work totally and going on a boat,” says Eldridge, “they do more of a downshift.”

Even downshifts can prove to be a drag, however. Many ex-CEOs and CFOs get bored without challenges. Indeed, the temptation to always do more can be hard for corporate executives to resist, employment experts point out. Eldridge says he’s seen cases of senior executives retiring at age 60, thinking they’ll keep active by sitting on two boards. But eventually, they take on more and more jobs. “One [former executive] said to me recently, ‘I’m as busy now as I used to be working full time.”

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