The Future of Senior Level Careers

In our work with senior executives, it is not uncommon to hear the following:

o I cannot afford to retire at age 65. My Business School roommate was able to retire at 45. I must be a failure.

o I can’t find a full-time job. I can only make money doing interim work or consulting work. I must be a failure.

Welcome to the world of short job tenure and long middle age.


These individual complaints are but symptoms of two larger social trends impacting all developed countries. The first trend is a shortening of traditional job tenure in line with the collapsing time frame for product life cycles, and corporate life cycles. Technology has been a driver behind the speeding up of our lives, including the speeding of what economists call creative destruction.

At the same time job tenure is getting shorter, life span is increasing. You can thank the same technological thinking that has also contributed to the lowering of your job tenure. The average life span within industrial societies has increase 12 years since social security was adopted. It is important, however, to remember that this additional 12 years is not an additional 12 years of old age. It is an elongation of middle age. Thriving in a world of short job tenure/long middle age requires career and strategic maneuverability. As an individual and as a business leader, the symbol for this maneuverability is Lou Gerstner:

Lew Gerstner was a partner at a leading LBO firm. He joined IBM as its CEO at a time when it had one hundred days of cash left and had just lost $8.1 Billion. People were writing-off IBM as a “has been” organization. In an engineering driven company, he admitted that he was technically incompetent. And yet, he moved IBM from a hardware-oriented company to a maneuverable global player focusing on IP and professional services.


We interviewed 50 executives who have been successful in managing their careers in a world of short job tenure and long middle age. Most of them were CEOs or reported directly to CEOs. Success was defined as financial and emotional satisfaction with both consulting and employment phases of their professional lives. What have we learned?


In the last ten years of the 20th century, Economists like Robert Reich and popular business magazines like BUSINESS 2.0 began to write about Free Agent Nation: Under a free agent model, executives have careers that resemble professional sports stars. Free agents smoothly shifting from one major league team to another major league team through the work of third parties. In the sports and entertainment sectors, these third parties are called Agents. In the world of business, these people are called retained search executives.

Professional sports players represent an elite segment of the general population. And even within this elite group, only the top 10-15% of this elite can count on the Free Agent model to work in their favor.