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Time To Pass The Baton (Or Ball)

Whether you love or hate him, Sir Alex Ferguson is a football legend in football. Even a footballing ignoramus like me knows who he is. In his quarter-century at Manchester United, Fergie has led his team to 13 league titles making him the most successful manager in English football history. He originally announced his retirement in 2001, but then decided that it was just too early to leave the beautiful game. Now at 71, he has finally decided that it is the right time and he leaves behind a stadium of sobbing fans and a legacy that will never be forgotten.

He’s famous for quite a few things; his work ethic (he is usually at the training ground at 7am and regularly works 18-hour days); his toughness and direct talking, his down to earth management style and personality; his success. In that respect, the next manager (now thought to be Everton’s David Moyes) will be under considerable pressure to deliver the same results. But it’s not just Fergie’s leadership style that we can learn a lot from. His most recent lesson is in retirement.

Since the default retirement age was removed in 2011, employees can now work past the age of 65 if they want and feel able to. For some people, financial situations will dictate a later retirement age, but for some like Alex Ferguson, our love of work may encourage us to work for longer. Sir Alex is rightly impatient of stereotyping, famously saying “The calendar can’t decide how alert or vigorous a person is... the notion of a retirement age is anathema to me”.

Football fans around the world were shocked on Wednesday; some even going so far to say that they expected him to still be on the side of the football pitch in a wheelchair. Some people do go on so long they drop while “in harness”; Tommy Cooper for example, had a heart attack while performing on stage. But most people like the chance to take it a bit easier and do other things before anno domini kicks in.

If you employ workers who are of the older generation, it’s important to support them in whatever decision they make. As Fergie shows, you can still be capable of turning in a good day’s work, even if you are well past the traditional age for retirement.

Working in retirement is becoming increasingly common. Sir Alex will be taking on the role of ambassador and director of the club, which is probably a relief to club members and supporters alike. Working in the same organisation in a less demanding role makes sense – employees can continue to use knowledge and expertise they can have built up over the years in their new role and be available to act as a resource to others.

The relief that many Manchester United fans are likely to feel that Sir Alex is not leaving the club altogether may well be felt by him too. When you've been so involved with the same organisation for so long, jumping ship completely can be a daunting prospect. The thought of relaxing in a comfy armchair with a good book is tempting when you've had a particularly stressful day. but many workers actually miss work when retirement becomes a full-time reality. Having a phased entry to retirement is no bad thing and gives employees the chance to create a retirement structure and routine (we tend to deteriorate quickly without a sense of purpose and routine).

Fergie seems to be remarkably spritely for 71, and he has decided to retire before he feels he has to go. Getting older is not always plain sailing and there can be problems with those workers who don’t like to admit that they’re no longer able to fulfill the requirements of the role (and there are plenty of those). Age is a sensitive subject, and understandably many people don’t like to admit that it might be time to go.

You can’t force such workers to retire. Any dismissal which is based on an employee’s age will amount to direct age discrimination, unless you can objectively justify such age-based dismissals. Retirement may be appropriate if it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, however you must still follow a fair procedure. It’s a high bar to achieve and most employers don’t even try it. That leaves you with dealing with the matter as a capability issue.

Like Terry Wogan’s decision to retire while the crowd still wanted more, Fergie’s graceful exit has shown us that retirement doesn't have to be and shouldn't be complicated. If you would like to discuss this with us, then please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Russell HR Consulting provides expert knowledge in HR solutions, employment law training and HR tools and resources to businesses across the UK.

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