Lessons from the State Department
What can an unwieldy bureaucratic behemoth such as the Foreign Service of the United States State Department teach the private sector about approaches to retirement? Plenty, it turns out. The Foreign Service has a strict mandatory retirement policy that requires foreign service officers to retire at age 65, so at first blush it does not exactly stand out as an exemplar of retirement flexibility. But as this story shows, it has a program for retirees that is remarkably innovative and which could perhaps be adapted for other sectors.
I learned about this program from a friend, J, who used to be a senior executive at Seagrams. Once Seagrams vanished, J decided that it was time for a second career, but her age (late 50’s) was an obstacle. After networking, researching and analyzing her strengths and interests (including foreign travel and meeting people), she found out that the Foreign Service would hire you provided you passed the Foreign Service exams and were accepted into a training program before age 60. So—J studied for and passed the (extremely difficult) exam and was accepted for training on the eve of her 60th birthday. There followed five years of interesting assignments, including extended tours of duty in Mexico and Colombia. After the five years were up, she was faced with the mandatory 65 year retirement cut off. But then she learned that the State Department has a program for retired Foreign Service personnel that allows them to continue working on short term assignments around the world, even after retirement.
The program works like this. Retired Foreign Service officers can apply to fill short term (usually six week to three month) assignments for up to a limit of six months a year, at postings where there is a temporary need for replacement help, whether due to illness, a sudden work crunch, maternity leave or other scheduling issues. Since retiring, J has taken advantage of the program to get numerous postings around the world, from the Caribbean to China, with loads of interesting stops in between. Her skills remain fresh, her horizons remain open, she meets new people and she still gets six months a year to kick back. And, I just found out that another retired Foreign Service friend, T, age 68, is temporarily in Afghanistan working in our Embassy there in a COO position! So much for retiring, slouching off into the sunset, abandoning your skill set and embracing safe horizons.
Can this program be replicated? Is there a way of harnessing the know how of experienced workers, to redeploy their talents on an as needed basis? Surely the answer is “yes.” If the program can work for an enterprise with the logistics of the diplomatic corps, it can work in many other contexts. Of course the program isn’t for everyone, and perhaps it would not work in every sector. But temporary staffing issues occur in virtually every field, and for retirees who want to keep their hand in, the Foreign Service program provides a brilliant template.
Marlene is a retired international corporate lawyer who now spends her time between Paris, New York and Miami, and practices her new skills all over the world.