When to Quit

Blake Hurst

RETIREMENT IS A HUGE decision, as readers of HumbleDollar well know. Retirement from a multi-generational business is even harder, because there isn’t really a day when you can say, “I’m retired.” Like the Hotel California, “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

I’m 65. That’s an age that carries a lot of social expectations. Age is not a continuum, but rather a series of milestones, and 65 is a big one. Is 65 old? I suppose it depends on the circumstances. When my grandfather was 65 and I was eight, I thought he was ancient. When my parents turned 65, I thought 65 seemed much less old. When my wife Julie and I turned 65, neither of us thought we were old.

Social media often runs pictures of old people from long ago, pointing out that people aged faster in the past than they do now. The people in the photos are certainly younger than you or I would guess. But then again, the photos are chosen to leave just that impression and, I suppose, to make us feel better about our age. We’re fatter than our ancestors, which hides wrinkles on our faces, and we’re less likely to smoke. Maybe we’re also using Botox and the surgeon’s knife to fool the camera, although not so much here in Tarkio, Missouri, the small town where I live. Still, I do have a suspicion about the use of hair dye among some of my contemporaries.

I spend a lot of time on HumbleDollar. One of the topics often tackled by writers is the proper age to claim Social Security. We’ve so far decided to wait, but I keep running the numbers in my head. This is an important decision for us and the website’s other readers. But it occurs to me that most people probably aren’t that interested in the subject. Maybe one way to judge age is whether or not you’ve turned into a total bore.

I’ve retired from one job. I spent 10 years as the president and CEO of the Missouri Farm Bureau, which is a farm advocacy group and insurance company. I didn’t leave because I was nearing “retirement age,” but because it was time to come home. I’m pretty sure both the Farm Bureau and my family are better off for the change, although my family has probably had days in the past two years when they weren’t so sure.

To know when to leave, to quit, to retire, is the hardest of decisions. I’m pretty sure I hadn’t lost the ability to make good decisions, but I am sure that my faults as a leader had become ever more calcified by time, my ability to change when change was needed was waning, my blind spots more likely to cause problems. That’s inevitable, a part of life as certain as gray hair and aching joints. It becomes sort of a calculus. When does the rising arc of experience intersect with the declining ability to change and learn? There’s no correct answer, I suppose, but rather an imprecise balancing act between the good of the organization, your personal life goals and your family.

I haven’t retired from our family business. Heck, I’m not sure I can. The business needs the help, as little as I offer. And, of course, I enjoy the work—mostly. But just as the Farm Bureau needed fresh ideas and new faces, so does our farm.

I’ve heard people talk about patriarchs who handed over management of a business while still providing much needed labor. I’ve also heard about unicorns, but I’ve never seen one. I can’t let go, you see, which is something that runs in the family, as it were. When the gerontocracy runs the place, experience means that few big mistakes are made. But the lack of change over time compounds at an increasing rate, and that can lead to real problems.

No doubt those who never move on, who never let go, stay sharper longer. As my grandfather, who was still actively farming in his 90s, used to say, “You’ll rust out before you wear out.” What’s good for Grandpa may not be best for the organization he leads, however, and that balancing act is the challenge that confronts all of us 65-year-olds running family businesses.

We’ll struggle and muddle our way through this old age thing, gradually and then not so gradually slowing down. Maybe I’ll finally learn how to fly fish, or let the younger generation run the combine, while I write that book or travel through Europe. They’ll figure it out and maybe I can stay mentally alert by taking up fantasy baseball or fixing the flaw in my golf swing. Or, I can start a new career, one that values my experience, but one where I don’t block those in the next generation from their chance to make their own way.

I’m thinking Walmart greeter.

Blake Hurst farms and grows flowers with his family in northwest Missouri. He and his wife Julie have three children. Their oldest daughter and both sons-in-law are involved in the family business, growing corn and soybeans, and shipping flowers to four states. Their middle daughter is the chief operating officer for a small hospital. Their youngest, a son, is a lawyer for the Department of Justice. Blake and Julie have six grandchildren. Blake is the former president of the Missouri Farm Bureau and a freelance writer. 

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