May 14, 2012 12:06 am

A new age-old problem

Managers are retiring later, but business schools are not providing appropriate programmes

I notice that one song the UK’s living legend Sir Paul McCartney never sings anymore is “When I’m 64”. That’s the one with the lines: “Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m 64?”

As he approaches his 70th birthday, it seems pretty obvious that the recently remarried and sprightly ex-Beatle has few concerns regarding the former. And with personal wealth in excess of £500m, where the next meal will come from can be no real concern either.

Of course, 64 used to be the age around which most executives retired, but managers nowadays concede that they will have to work into their late 60s, and possibly until they are 70. Just what they will do, and how they will do it, is proving increasingly perplexing, however.

Of course, if it just meant tagging a couple of extra years on to the end of an illustrious career, that would be fine. But these days younger and younger managers are making it to board level, and as career advancement accelerates, so too does business innovation.

Not only will we all have to work longer, but the speed at which the nature of our jobs change is increasing. As career consultants like to impress on us, many of the industries graduates are moving into today did not exist 20 years ago – hedge funds, areas of biotech and healthcare and, of course, anything that involves the internet.

It is also likely that the pace of change will accelerate. Ten years from now there will be jobs that we cannot even imagine at the moment.

So what does this mean for today’s managers approaching their 50th birthdays? With corporate and state pension pots depleted in most developed countries, early retirement, it seems, is no longer an option. Instead these managers face another 20 years of work, possibly in a very different job to the one they do today.

Just as important, how will employers deal with these issues, or with reskilling their workforce?

The obvious answer has to be some kind of executive short programme, either a corporate course in industries that are changing rapidly – publishing or retail, for example – where companies will need experienced managers to reshape the business, or an open-enrolment programme to develop personal skills or provide industry updates.

What are business schools doing to address this need? Very little, it would seem. It has been two decades since business schools started talking about lifelong learning, but few have adopted policies to make it happen. Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania, which along with the Haas school at UC Berkeley is introducing regular updates for MBA alumni, seems to be further along that route than most.

Topping up

MBA alumni from both the Wharton school and UC Berkeley in the US now have the option to return to business school for short courses throughout their lives as part of the deal.

At Harvard University, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, 69, has developed the Advanced Leadership Fellowship, which selects highly experienced (for which read mature) people from all walks of life to try and address some of the world’s big problems by applying their expertise together with the latest thinking from the university.

But this will still only occupy the time and minds of a handful of the world’s elite academics and practitioners.

Most business schools, with the exception of executive education specialists such as IMD in Switzerland and Ashridge in the UK, are essentially degree machines, targeting those under the age of 30. Indeed, I suspect the rush by top schools such as London Business School, Duke University in North America and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology to launch pre-experience masters in management degrees means that the average age of students on postgraduate degree programmes is actually coming down. Most of this push towards increased numbers of degrees is fed by the need for course fees. This ignores the fact that the big advantage of the more mature managers is that they – or their companies – can afford to pay more. This is been clear for a while now with executive MBA programmes, which target people in their 40s and 50s and charge $150,000 upwards.

Perhaps Global EMBA programmes are the answer. Dave Wilson, president of the Graduate Management Admissions Council, thinks they may be. His suggestion, however, is that the GEMBA may need a change of name to Geriatric EMBA.

If business is changing the way it operates every 10 years or so, should management education do the same? According to Tom Robertson, dean of Wharton, alumni are just as keen to learn from fellow alumni as from Wharton professors, according to recent research conducted by the school. Is this the future? Ten years from now, what will executive education look like? Perhaps it will be something we cannot even imagine today.

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