A retiree re-enters the work world — as an intern

After leaving corporate life, an executive finds a new way to teach, and learn from, a new generation of workers Illustration by Josh Cochran An extended…

After leaving corporate life, an executive finds a new way to teach, and learn from, a new generation of workers

Illustration by Josh Cochran

An extended audio version of this story can be heard on Episode 31 of Work in Progress, Slack’s podcast about the meaning and identity we find in work.

One afternoon last summer, Paul Critchlow watched in awe as a fellow intern at Pfizer scrolled through her Facebook feed. “How do you get to the bottom of this?” he asked. Critchlow had never noticed the bottomlessness of social media. He wondered: if there is no end to information, how did his colleagues ever draw a conclusion about anything?

Critchlow was an intern, but it wasn’t his first time learning from — or offering advice to — his peers. Seventy-year-old Critchlow was retired when he chose to reenter the workforce. “I [had] complete and total freedom for the first time in my life,” he says of retiring. “But the feeling of irrelevancy [was] very powerful.”

In 2015, Critchlow left Merrill Lynch after more than 30 years as a communications executive and banker. Despite trying to fill his time with task-focused hobbies, he couldn’t seem to retire his workaholism.

He didn’t feel freed from the drudgery of work. He felt left behind.

“I have always identified strongly with whatever work I was involved in,” he says. “I’ve always been a kind of a person who likes structures, to have objectives and goals, and to be part of a team.”

Hard work had been hardwired since he’d started his fulfilling 45-year career. After excelling at high school football, he joined the Army and served as a paratrooper in Vietnam before entering corporate life.

Official portrait at Merrill Lynch 1992 where he led communications and public affairs

Even after he retired, “I had an expectation that people would reach out to me and ask me to do things.” They didn’t. The workaholic was without purpose. “I won’t say that I got depressed, but I was acutely aware that nobody was calling.”

Sally Susman, a friend at pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, did finally call to offer an unorthodox opportunity: the option to become a senior intern. She’d seen The Intern, in which Robert De Niro portrays Anne Hathaway’s 70-year-old intern. Critchlow hadn’t seen the film, but he was in.

Some friends thought it was ridiculous to spend his summer working with college kids. Critchlow used to occupy a big office and take the company helicopter. Now, at his insistence, he would be paid as an intern — $18.25 an hour — and sit with them at a communal desk.

Initially, the Baby Boomer and his Millennial colleagues seemed wary of one another. But as the others in his cohort warmed to his perspective and high-touch professionalism, he learned to appreciate their authenticity and technology tips. They started calling him “Critch,” and as a group they called themselves the Fabulous Four.

The Fabulous Four in the Pfizer office, summer 2016. Connor Sink, Sophie Spallas, Sarah Rekenthaler, and Paul Critchlow

Their different perspectives became most apparent the day Critch gave a presentation about surviving 9–11. Working on Wall Street, he’d gone into soldier mode, arriving home after midnight because he’d stayed downtown all day, helping survivors.

“I wish I’d found some older mentors to give some perspective to the way I was living. I could only come to [these realizations] after I was retired and in the sadness of no longer having professional identity,” he notes. “I’m much more comfortable now with identities on both sides of the ledger.”

Critchlow’s wife had begged him to discuss the attack when he finally returned home. But an exhausted Critchlow couldn’t deconstruct his day, and the next day, he went right back to work. The strain of his soldier-style stoicism nearly pulled the couple apart; they separated for two years.

As he told the story years later, the other interns balked at how radically out of balance Critchlow’s priorities had been. Even he could see that his younger colleagues — many the same age he was when he enlisted — had a healthier work-life balance. At the end of the day, he’d stay hunched over his desk while everyone else was already enjoying happy hour.

“I wish I’d found some older mentors to give some perspective to the way I was living. I could only come to [these realizations] after I was retired and in the sadness of no longer having professional identity,” he notes. “I’m much more comfortable now with identities on both sides of the ledger.”

Paul Critchlow relaxing on the beach in Sag Harbor

 

Critchlow says the interns also offered practical knowledge. “They taught me how to use Facebook, Instagram, Twitter — things that I had never done. They also taught me how to be briefer.”

Perhaps most importantly, Critchlow and his colleagues became friends. Critchlow’s wife affectionately dubbed him the office “rent-a-Grandpa.” Susman, the friend who’d gotten him the gig, saw Paul rebound from anxious retiree to gregarious professional. Critchlow noticed the transformation, too. “I did feel like I was becoming part of something again. It was a very rewarding feeling to have.”

And, it helped Critchlow figure out his next project: a consulting firm offering career coaching. His first client? Pfizer.

He keeps in touch with his fellow interns, too. “It was amazing,” he marvels. “By the end of the summer, we were buddies, allies, partners.”

 

Work in Progress story produced by Mio Adilman.

 

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