The importance of lifelong mentorship

by Julie Miller

A theme that arose multiple times in our weekly “coffee chats” with recent AgeLab interns was the importance of mentorship - specifically, being mentored early in one’s career. Those conversations have prompted me to think more about mentorship more generally, in my own life and more broadly in terms of aging, work, and retirement in our society.

For as long as I can remember, I have been (and continue to be!) a grateful recipient of personal, professional, and academic mentorship; I also have been in the privileged position of serving as a mentor to students and colleagues. In my experience, a good mentor is someone you can turn to for guidance and advice, someone who supports and challenges you to think and plan strategically in light of “your life whole,” and cares enough about your growth to talk through the sticky situations, ask you the tough questions, and connect you with others when it makes sense.

Often, though not always, more rookie professionals tend to be mentored by more seasoned professionals- people who are further along in their career trajectory. But I wonder whether changes in the life course – to both our working and post-working lives – have opened the need for a different kind of mentoring relationship – one for near and recent retirees.

In the United States, job (and career)-switching has become more commonplace, primarily among younger workers, but also among those in older cohorts. And with longer and healthier lifespans available to many of us, people are spending more years working and more years in some version of retirement – full, partial, or otherwise. Our work-lives have become more complicated, and so has retirement.

Where do people nearing retirement and in retirement go for mentorship - for guidance, cheerleading, daydreaming, and networking about their next steps? This kind of support goes beyond the scope of a standalone retirement workshop run by Human Resources, and I believe also operates outside the immediate bounds of therapy, life coaching, and friendships.

Let me explain what I mean. People with the privilege of choosing to retire often find themselves faced with the question: “Now what? I may have eight thousand days open ahead of me. What should I do with them?” At the same time, many other people are not afforded the opportunity to choose when and how they retire - whether it be related to job loss due to acute or chronic health issues- their own or their loved ones’; layoffs or other job changes; or financial needs that necessitate continuing to work as long as possible.

A model for how to live in one’s later years is not readily available. This is why near-retirement and post-retirement is a phase of life for which we might also need mentors – to help us think strategically about the future, imagine how we can grow, deal with sticky situations, and ask us tough questions we might not be willing to face ourselves. Regardless of one’s situation, the question remains the same: where does one go for mentorship as a “mature professional?”  How do mentoring relationships take shape for those nearing their traditional retirement years and for those who have recently retired?

How can individuals, organizations, and institutions rise to the challenges and opportunities of increased longevity by offering new types of mentorship for people of all ages?

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About the Author

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Julie Miller

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