MIT alumni in their 50s

I attended an MIT alumni gathering last week. There was a slight selection bias in that all those present were people whom an on-campus group was hoping to get donations from. Inadvertently it turned out to be an interesting look into what typical career paths look like once people are 50-60 (though remember that those who’d been complete financial failures had been screened out).

The medical doctor was at the peak of his career and in no danger of being fired. The university professor had the security of tenure and was looking forward to a defined benefit pension starting six years from now. The corporate attorney was finishing up a prosperous career. The engineers who’d chosen to work in industry, however, were a varied lot. A woman who’d taken a job at a defense contractor was still there, 30 years later. The super-wizard Lisp Machine programmer was now in a senior technical, but non-supervisory role, at a multi-billion dollar dotcom (not necessarily getting paid more than a competent 30-year-old, however). About half of the engineers, however, talked about being pushed into a financially uncomfortable early retirement and/or not being able to find work. Aside from the government-related work, the world of these alums does seem be consistent with Dave Winer’s recent “I would have hired Doug Engelbart” posting (summary: age discrimination is surmountable if you happen to have been one of the most successful engineers of all time (see The Demo from 1968, featuring everything that you’re using right now, except maybe for Patchmania)).

Lesson: Unless you are confident that your skills are very far above average, don’t take a career path that subjects you to the employment market once you’re over 50 (and/or make sure that by age 50 you’ve saved enough for a retirement that begins at age 50 or 55 and during which you won’t have employer-provided health insurance for up to a 15-year gap between age 50 and Medicare age).

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

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