50 plus: To retire or not to retire?

Most industrialized nations encounter the same phenomena:  Their citizens live longer. But do they also work longer?

In the last 150 years, the average human lifespan has been extended by about three months each year. In Germany the average life expectancy meanwhile is 81 years for women and 74 years for men.

Not only are people getting older, they are aging in much better health and with an interest in staying longer active and involved in all aspects of life.

The freedom to make one’s own choices regarding work and retirement is surely a reflection of the fundamental values of society and culture. The lengthening of lifespan, improvements in healthcare, changes in education, and opportunities for an active life in retirement are developments that each society must come to grips with – developments that each society must constantly adapt to and evolve with.

As in most other industrialized nations, in Germany the discussion regarding increasing entrance age for retirement benefits from 65 to 67 years, has been in the forefront during recent years.

However, in Germany the discussion is not based on the wishes or the needs of those individuals who will reach retirement age in the near future.  It is based on the society’s quest for full employment for the young. And, of course, as in the United States, the discussion reflects the need for – and the means for – financing retirement for present and future generations.

This question must be raised, however: What is the point of arguing whether the retirement age should be 65 or 67, considering that large corporations, such as Volkswagen as an example, have for decades used a strategy to entice employees into early retirement? They have attempted to “make room” for their young apprentices.  And, as a result of such strategies, the “real-life” average retirement age in Germany has been just under 60 years.

The reality is that one of every two companies in Germany has no employees older than 50 years (according to IAB), and not too long ago more than 1.6 million people over the age of 50 were listed as unemployed (according to BA).

And, while companies and recruiting firms in the United States face stiff legal penalties for questions referring to applicants’ age, and for making negative remarks relative to the age of candidates, only a few years ago a partner at one of Germany’s largest recruiting firm publicly warned that it would be, “Very negative in regard to Germany’s competitiveness,” to have older people working.  “Often they are not able to cope with the stress and physical demands of work anymore,” according to FAZ, Nov. 13, 2002.

This is very different than attitudes in the US.  Newspapers asked the owner of a restaurant if it was not too much for his 80-year-old waitress to continue working. His answer was a reflection of the American understanding that retirement is in large part an individual choice, and that each person is as old as he or she feels: “As long as she can take the stairs to the second floor of the restaurant and she wants to do the job, she is young enough,” he said.

by: Egon L. Lacher, Managing Partner/Miami

Inter-Cultural Differences or THE BREAK

No, it’s not the title of a movie or a fiction novel – but rather the daily reality for everyone working for or with foreign-owned companies.

Knowingly or unknowingly, we are deciding by our daily statements and actions one of the fundamental issues for every foreign subsidiary: Where shall the ‘BREAK’ be

  • between local senior management and European headquarters, or
  • between local senior management and local staff/clients?

This seems to be a meaningless question and it could be assumed that the right answer would be that a company should have no such ‘Break’.

Unfortunately every company with subsidiaries in other nations will have a ‘Break’ – it is inevitable.

What Now Is ’The Break’?

Certainly not an easy question to answer and it may very well be a case of “we know it when we see it.”

Since this is obviously not of much help, an approximation could be as following: The ‘Break’ is no more and no less than the border/the grey area between two fundamentally different systems of thinking and acting, based on existing customs and structures in separate environments that have to interact somehow.

A European headquarters and a U.S. based subsidiary are a typical example.

It is not a specific block of situations or actions, but the combination of many individual and ever changing actions and reactions as well as the assumption and interpretation of other people’s behavior.

And What Does This Have To Do With Our Daily Business?

Its influence is prompting question like:

  • Should the leader of a foreign subsidiary be a ‘local’ or come from the cultural background of the parent company?
  • Should managers of the European parent company form the local Board of Directors (‘the couple of decisions we need to make, we can just take care of between ourselves’) or are local business leaders needed to balance out misunderstandings?
  • Should the employment contract for a local general manager be founded in European or in American thinking and business customs?
  • Should the European parent company expect a local second tier manager to speak out about of the local president’s shortcomings? If not, is he/she loyal or just ‘soft’?
  • How many years does it take for a foreigner to become a ‘local’ business executive? Is it even a question of time, or rather a question of how intense he/she is immersed into local live style and customs?
  • Is there really a significant difference between a ‘European in America’ and an ‘Americanized European’? How can it be measured? Is it good? Is it even important?

These questions have been neglected in light of the global business mantra in the past that only ‘native’ managers should be employed. And such arrangement has obviously done little to overcome the effects of the ‘break’ – it just shifted the focus from the local level to the point of interaction between local and parent company management.

To do what could indeed be right (i.e., give local staff and clients their local managers) does not seem to be beneficial when the results cost more time and effort for the parent company’s senior management (multiplied by the quantity of subsidiaries around the world). Not to mention the often resulting confusion between the two management groups.

Indeed, as long as business is good, the accompanying irritations are taking in stride. When times gets tough, the confusion and the added complexity of daily communications quickly become too much of a burden.

It comes as no surprise that increasing numbers of European firms are falling back to the seemingly easiest solution for ‘improving communication’ between the two sides: using managers from the parent company (or parent company’s nationality) to run their subsidiary.

On the flip-side, it is then expected that local staff and local clients just deal with the resulting misunderstandings and communication problems instead.

So, What Can We Do?

No simple or generic structural adjustments can negate the basic fact that a ‘break’ between overlapping cultural expectations, values and customs exist. Nor can they eliminate the necessity of dealing with their effects – large and small – on a daily basis. In reality, no across-the-board decision can have any influence on the complexity, the problems, and pitfalls of this ‘break’.

In reality, it is rather irrelevant if the U.S.-based general manager has the same cultural background as the parent company, or is a ‘native’ American or ‘Americanized’ European. It only shifts the format of the daily problems without alleviating the reality created by its existence as such.

The best course, therefore, is to select as general manager the individual best suited to deal with the specifics of the company, its products/services and clients. This person will need to determine how the specifics of any inter-cultural issues in his/her company influences the daily reality of the firm, how it is perceived, and how it needs to be dealt with.

As such, it will be less of a philosophical issue, rather than one of concrete business decisions and a dedicated effort to overcome the limitations, confusions and – yes, no question about it – the regular irritations between the main parties involved.

Selecting the ‘best manager available’ rather than a person with an artificially designed profile will be a good step in this direction.

by: Egon L. Lacher, Managing Partner/Miami