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Old and in the way? Not a bit of it

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Robert Adam tells how, having turned 70, he has embarked on a new stage in his working life

Robert Adam

Generations have moved on by a decade. We get married later, we live longer, and some of us work beyond the official retirement age. Architects, in a profession where it’s often not a job but a calling, are well-known for never giving up. But this creates its own problems.

Few successful firms are just based on one person. You need to share the burden of practice; up-and-coming partners create their own opportunities and protect long-term value. But the up-and-coming also want their day in the sun and the shadow of a well-known senior can get in the way.

This was my problem. When I turned 70, I was feeling fit and active. But a carefully constructed age-graded succession ladder of equal directors needed space at the top. I had major ongoing projects and the last thing I wanted was to throw it all away and go off to dig the garden. So, I took soundings from friends across the profession.

What I came across was often a disaster zone. There were defunct partners hanging around and getting in the way, father and son splits, a distribution of wholly-owned shares followed by dismissal by the new shareholders, old-fashioned retire-at-60 contracts, and an offer to carry on working, but only as a grunt.

The whole thing is complicated by entrepreneur’s relief. If you sell your shares you can save a lot of tax. It’s meant, quite rightly, for those who use their business value as a pension pot; but you can’t just carry on as usual and you definitely lose control.

Agreeing that I needed to make space at the top, I did a deal with the taxman to see out my surviving contracts working no more than three days a week.

But then found I was just going to be on the staff list where I’d strutted my stuff for more than four decades, at the beck and call of former colleagues who had no enthusiasm for giving me any meaningful position or title. It was an unattractive proposition.

So, I created a new firm, Robert Adam Architectural Consultancy Limited, and now sell my time back to my old firm. But not just to them; I’m on the market. This isn’t retirement, it’s a new stage in working life. There are no status or working-practice niggles with my old directors and I can make full use of my experience and skills on the open market. I keep good relations with my old firm, I can go on and on, ease off if it suits me and find new ways of fulfilling my vocation as a designer, academic and writer.

All depending, of course, on finding work in a post-lockdown world.

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