Hunter Harrison won’t retire, and there are millions more like him

The 72-year-old railway executive's decision to pursue a challenging new gig instead of retirement is emblematic of the changing shape of the workforce

(Photo: Ania and Tyler Stalman)

(Portrait by Ania and Tyler Stalman)

For all Hunter Harrison’s unquestionable talents, he is really bad at one thing: not working.

The celebrated railway executive officially retired from Canadian National Railway Company (CN) in 2009, after a long career running railways. A little more than two years later, at the encouragement of activist investor Bill Ackman, Harrison came out of retirement to become president and CEO of Canadian Pacific Railway (CP). His plan was to step away, again, this summer, when he was scheduled to hand the CEO reins to longtime lieutenant Keith Creel and start a three-year tenure as a consultant (or, in his own words, a “hired hand”) to the railway. That arrangement suggested the transition of power would be a gradual process. But last week, CP announced Harrison would be departing immediately to pursue other opportunities. For his early departure, Harrison will forfeit some $118 million in benefits that had been awaiting him. Hours later, several reports emerged suggesting that Harrison will be partnering with another activist investor to take control of U.S. railway CSX Corp.

If Harrison is indeed installed as CEO at CSX, it will be no cushy gig: the railroad’s revenue and earnings have been underperforming expectations, and its lingering operational inefficiencies have raised concerns among many investors. At 72, Hunter Harrison appears set to take on one of the most challenging jobs in a career full of them. Retirement just doesn’t seem to hold a lot of appeal. And in that respect, Harrison is perfectly representative of the new breed of non-retiree that is about to transform the workforce.

As humans live longer, and as physically taxing labour—the kind that wears out knees and backs—comprises less and less of the economy in the developed world (note that millennials entering today’s workforce will spend, on average, three times as many years working as their equivalent would have 100 years ago), people are growing less and less keen to call it a career as soon as they hit pension age. A 2015 HSBC survey revealed that 45% of working-age Canadians planned to semi-retire once they reached the age at which people have traditionally ceased working altogether; 15% expected to stay on the job until the very end. There’s an economic imperative at play, of course: thanks to steadily increasing costs of living, and record levels of household debt, many sexagenarians and even septuagenarians simply can’t afford to stop working. According to a 2016 study by the Broadbent Institute, only half of Canadian couples aged 55 to 64 had an employer pension to share between them; of those lacking a pension, less than 20% had saved enough to pad out government old-age payments.

But financial necessity isn’t the only factor here—even for people not fortunate enough to share Harrison’s tax bracket. For legions of career-minded Boomers, work is far from a slog: in fact, it’s enjoyable. After decades engaged in fulfilling, challenging work, a life of leisure isn’t necessarily appealing. As MoneySense columnist Jonathan Chevreau wrote in a column a few months back, “Semi-retirement is about much more than just having enough money to sit back and do nothing. Have you ever tried to do nothing for an extended period of time? Fact is, all those empty hours in an unplanned retirement can weigh heavily: you may find yourself bored to death.” In Harrison’s case, it seems a life hanging out with horses all day wasn’t so appealing.

This trend toward ever-increasing career longevity creates some very real opportunities for employers: many older workers have skills, experience and institutional memory that organizations can ill afford to lose, and the overall shift in the past decade towards more itinerant and flexible work arrangements makes it possible to accommodate the kind of part-time workload a semi-retiree might enjoy.

But this transformation also creates challenges, both small (employers with older people on the payroll will probably need to revise their benefits programs, for instance) and large (consider the macro economic problem created by the harsh fact that the more the likes of Harrison and his ilk kick around, the less opportunities there are for younger folk to advance in a job—or, in many cases, even secure one to begin with). These are issues that are not necessarily easy to solve, but they can’t be ignored. Because the Hunter Harrisons of the world are making it pretty clear that they’re not going anywhere.