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Opinion

The Jeff Bezos trait we all share

Focus on impact and reinvention is the new career trajectory of the century

| North America
Jeff Bezos, pictured in April 2018: all of the senior leaders like him found that every career has a midnight hour.   © AP

Diana Wu David is an ex-Financial Times executive and Hong Kong-based strategist and speaker who teaches at Hong Kong University Business School. She is author of "Future Proof: Reinventing Work in the Age of Acceleration."

It came as a surprise to many that Jeff Bezos, at 57, decided to step down as CEO of Amazon this week to follow his passions and reinvent himself. Why would he leave Amazon during a blockbuster year?

In a letter to staff, Bezos said he will swap his "consuming" CEO role to spend more time on passion projects, from climate change to space exploration, which have global impact. This focus on impact and reinvention is the new career trajectory of the 21st century. It is an era of reinvention and of flourishing new careers for those executives who, like Bezos, say "I've never had more energy, and this isn't about retiring."

Dark factories and automation, including Amazon's own, have been seen as a threat to workers and cause for workplace angst about robots taking our jobs. Meanwhile, the bigger tsunami in the workplace is demographics, specifically the rise of the older worker.

Like climate change, the problem is large scale and abstract and therefore a blind spot for companies and individuals alike. By 2050 there will be more than 438 million people in China over the age of 65 and one in five people will be over the age of 80. In Hong Kong and Japan, workers over 50 are the fastest-growing segment of the workforce.

Companies and governments are falling behind. The World Economic Forum has spoken of a "global retirement time bomb," with developed countries needing to hike their retirement ages before their pension systems collapse. Just eight countries face a combined shortfall of $400 trillion by 2050. Four of these -- Japan, Australia, India and China -- are in Asia-Pacific.

Elderly people in Beijing, pictured in November 2020: by 2050 there will be more than 438 million people in China over the age of 65.   © Reuters

Green shoots abound. Nestle Hong Kong recently participated in the Hong Kong Employees Retraining Board to introduce internships for people over 50. There are new policies that are more age inclusive, such as extending caregiving leave to those people who need to look after parents or spouses. Mercer has even piloted a platform to use its retired consultants on ad hoc projects. Yet, these are insufficient when it comes to speed of adoption and scale.

COVID has accelerated this push for reinvention as executives wake up to the need to repurpose themselves for new longer careers. Aisha Fauzi, a senior aircraft finance lawyer from Malaysia -- and her hotelier husband -- are a prime example.

With aircraft grounded indefinitely and hotels closed, they initiated a long-held dream to start a permaculture business in Bali after years of research and preparation. The impact on their industries and the new norms of remote work in the pandemic allowed them to set up their business from a laptop before moving to Indonesia full-time. Early planning while still employed, including using holidays to build their network and see other farms, allowed them to build a bridge to future options.

Many reinventions are spurred by the desire to create more impact in the world around us. Singaporean banker Eric Sim started Institute of Life in 2016 while still pursuing his full-time work. His purpose is to fill the gap in the people skills so important to careers but not taught to young people at school. Leveraging social media he now has a thriving second career and 2.7 million LinkedIn followers that tune in to his career and life advice across Asia.

In some cases, deepening learning and contribution has been a driver. We are becoming accustomed to people like professor Roger King, who pursued a Ph.D. in his sixties to focus on family business research. Now a sought-after expert from his base at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, he is helping other families weather succession and success.

Like Bezos, all of these senior leaders found that every career has a midnight hour. But the smart people leave at five to twelve.

A longer life combined with a desire for impact, contribution, control over one's time and continued learning, all play into a push for reinvention. Using digital platforms, such people develop thought leadership that they can leverage into future roles in education, on boards or starting up new businesses.

Expert networks like Lynk Global, based in Hong Kong, Mimir in Japan or CapVision in China, are snapping up people with experience and deep wisdom to share. The increasing fluidity of work, with digital collaboration and dispersed project teams, means there has never been a better time to follow and monetize passions in a portfolio career. Companies will have to rethink outdated retirement policies and brittle work structures if they want to hold onto this intellectual capital.

Modern elders like Bezos, Fauzi or Sim may be the world's new titans, but the reality is that this new stage of life will come to us all. We are looking at longer, healthier years beyond normal retirement and wondering what on earth to do with them. And so we must reinvent.

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