Paul Critchlow is a decorated Vietnam combat veteran with more than 30 years experience in journalism, government and finance. He retired in 2015, and two years later, inspired by the movie The Intern, joined Pfizer as a 70-year-young summer intern along with a lot of college students.
Q. What was your first day as a summer intern like?
I was very nervous. It was like the first day back at school when I was a young kid. I was anxious that the college interns would not like the idea of having an older man in their midst, and I could see they were nervous too. What came naturally was using humor to break the ice. As they introduced themselves, we got into a really good relationship where humor was used both ways.
Q. What was it like serving through the summer with all these college kids, ending up in such a different role from what you were used to before?
It took me a while to adjust to the differences, because I was no longer a boss or even a senior professional. I sat where the interns sat, earned the same pay as they did. The only concession that was made was that I would be in the office only three or four days a week, not five like the rest, but I was on a full-time schedule. It took some time to understand that I was there to mentor and to be mentored, not to tell anyone what to do. The biggest thing I had to learn was to just be quiet and listen — and that’s when I really began to gain a lot from the program.
Q. How did this experience change you as a person?
It had an enormous effect. First of all, it reinvigorated me after retiring. I had taken a year off, spent practically that whole year “at the beach”, shall we say, and became bored. I was a little lonely, I felt isolated. When you leave a company, even if you were there for a long time — as I was at Merrill Lynch — the calls and emails stop coming very quickly. I spent much of the time trying to make up tasks for myself: I picked up trash along the roadside, got myself into better physical shape, etc., but I started to feel irrelevant.
When the offer came from a friend of mine called Sally Sussman, who was the head of corporate affairs at Pfizer, to become a senior intern, I thought about it briefly and then jumped at it. It was life changing. It gave me a whole new sense of myself, it made me realize that I still have a lot to contribute and learn, and it’s important to open oneself to situations like this to make that happen.
Q. What happened to your relationship with work after you did this internship?
I learned to look at work and engagement in the workplace in a completely different way. I didn’t have control of anything, and I’d been used to having it throughout my career. I had to put in my two cents, let others put in their two cents, and then arrive at a consensus. It was incredibly liberating, I learned a whole other way to approach life in the workplace, without being responsible for everything: you can get a lot of joy out of just collectively doing something; you’re not trying to prove anything. I didn’t have any agenda, I didn’t expect to get anything out of it except for the experience. There’s a whole other way to conduct oneself that’s quite freeing.
Q. What did the other interns get out of the experience? How did Pfizer change or learn as an organization after this experience?
They let me know that they had gotten as much out of working with me as I did with them. They were incredibly eager to have someone to talk to about career and even life choices, so in some ways I was a surrogate parent — neutral and with the benefit of wisdom, generated by 50 years of experience. Some of them were very eager to get time with me, and my schedule filled up quickly.
The Pfizer employees also wanted to talk: about their careers, their lives — that was very touching and gratifying to me. One of the interns, a young woman from India who was in a master’s program at a major university, wanted to stay here in the US but she was from a rural village in India, and her father expected her to work close to home when she was done with her education. That was the cultural expectation. We talked through the ways she could explain to her father how her perspective had changed, and she said later that it gave her the permission she needed to do what she really wanted. That kind of experience happened over and over again, and it was extremely rewarding to see people making choices, and taking control and agency over their lives.
Pfizer also appreciated the experiment. It was truly positive, both ways — they mentored me, I mentored them.
I taught them the basics of communication techniques and business communications, and they taught me about social media and technology, which I was able to learn in a safe space. They enjoyed a series of lectures that I gave to the interns throughout the summer — the company liked them so much they asked me to present them for other people in the corporation. In those lectures I talked about my life, and what I had learned that might be useful to them. To this day I’m still involved with Pfizer, still make many of the same presentations and I’m available for people at all levels.
Q. Has Pfizer adopted more multigenerational programs after the good experience they had with you?
Yes. Pfizer clearly felt the program was more than successful, but it’s important to say that it worked because me and Sally Sussman, who was my sponsor, happen to be friends. We knew each other, we had chemistry and trust, and a pretty good sense that neither of us would have a problem or cause a problem; and if we did, we could work it out as we went along. It’s a little more complicated to start a program from scratch, without knowing what the chemistry will be like between the sponsor and the senior person. That was somewhat of a unique thing.
Pfizer loves the effects of intergenerational mixing. We have a website called Get Old, where I post regular articles talking about my own experiences with the aging process, stories I want to do, or that they ask me to do. This website has half a million followers and it’s a very loyal following, so there’s a lot of interaction. Also Pfizer has started a program called Take Your Parents to Work, or Take an Older Person to Work. We had our first pilot project a couple of months ago, at a major facility in Pennsylvania. All the employees were invited to bring a parent or an older person even if the person was just a day older. There was mixing, there were programs. We had stations devoted to healthy aging, physical fitness, technology 101. It was hugely successful, the response from the employees and the guests was amazing.
They’re almost certainly going to put that program into effect on a broader scale, and it’s all about getting the joy, the wisdom and the benefit out of mixing the older and the younger. So the program will have a significant ongoing life.
Q. Do you have any advice for organizations that might be interested in starting these multigenerational programs? What things do they need to be aware of?
First of all, the company needs to find the right sponsor, the right senior person and then make sure there’s chemistry and a basic trust. It’s important to have a well structured program, with very distinct objectives — five or six, with specific projects that the senior and the younger interns can work on together, not necessarily with the senior intern being in charge. Building in time for mentoring, both informal and formal, is needed. Conversations are confidential, the senior intern shouldn’t have “no agenda” and he or she won’t represent the company, their sponsor or their boss.
Someone who wants to become a senior intern needs to make sure they learn how to listen; to be quiet, take it all in and resist the urge to talk to their new colleagues about everything they know. That’s a hard urge to resist, but if you do the mutual learning will be much more effective.
Q. Do you have any other advice for retirees that might be considering participating in a multigenerational program?
First of all, the retiree needs to think about what they have to contribute from their background, and consider who could benefit from that experience. It’s good to create a proposal, and put it out there. After a person retires, the world does not come after them to ask them to do anything. You have to put yourself out there, and when you do you’ll be welcomed.
Another critical practical consideration is understanding that you’re not going to get paid what you did when you were a full time employee. If you do, good for you, but the chances are you’re not. What one gets out of this, the real pay, is not the money. Also, there aren’t going to be any perks. No big office, or any of the other things you had in your previous workplace; and that’s liberating. This allows you to concentrate much more on the experience, and much less on the trappings.
Q. In your opinion, are changing for seniors or retirees who want to rejoin the workforce?
Yes. I’ve had calls from companies, from all over the world, who want to set up small and larger senior internship programs. Also, I’ve received calls from the media, so there’s clearly great interest in the concept. In this fast moving world, dominated by social media and other fragmented outlets, people are looking for the solidity and wisdom that experienced workers have.
There have been very encouraging success cases. There’s a couple who call themselves the Senior Nomads — they travel around the world using Airbnb — they ended up getting a summer senior internship at Airbnb on the West Coast. They called me to ask for advice on how it ought to be structured, they had a brilliant experience and blogged about it. It was very exciting to watch them make their way, and benefit from the things I had learned.
One person I got to meet in the experience was Chip Conley; he’s a brilliant guy and a very accomplished hotelier, who retired, and became a senior intern himself, and a mentor to the CEO of Airbnb. He created a fantastic concept called the Modern Elder Academy, where people in their mid to later years, who are looking to reset themselves, can go and learn how to do that in the most effective way.
There’s a real market developing for this. There are retirees everywhere who would be terrific senior interns. The key is to get the word out, and get these people connected with the companies or organizations that could benefit from having them. It’s a very promising trend, it’s just starting but it can make a real difference.
Q. What are the biggest challenges into creating truly inclusive workplaces where different generations, including seniors, can live and work together in an optimal way?
When Pfizer asked me to be a senior intern, they offered me an office, but I wanted to sit with the other interns: they worked in open spaces, around workbenches and large desktops. The physical proximity enabled us to mix it up a lot more; it would have been hard for me to get out of an office and go talk to them, because I was shy too. I’m as shy as any young person when I’m in a new setting. Working in the same space as them, however, there was no escape, there was always a lot of daily interaction. The physical setup is very important.
Also, building in some social interaction time — going to lunch with interns in smaller groups, where there can be real sharing of food and friendship. Creating an environment where everybody looks forward to seeing everyone else. It’s just amazing how people can spark each other, how young people spark me and I spark them.
By the time we were done they would help me with my presentations, for example. Connor, a young man who was part of my immediate group, once told me: “this is a great presentation, but you’re not saying how you really feel about the subject”. That took the presentation to a whole new level. There we have two very important elements: specific things to work on together, and plenty of chance to interact socially as well as professionally.
Unconsciously we tend to separate people rather than bring them together. We assume the senior person will want an office, we assume people will not want to eat lunch together. Approaching this is in itself an experience.
When a person is 70 years old and going into a whole new setting, they have to drop a lot of their normal pretensions; drop the presence they’ve cultivated over many years in the workplace, let their guard down and be their real selves. Young people, on the other hand, already are they’re their real selves, they haven’t been molded yet into everyone’s version of what an older, accomplished professional should look and act like.
Q. What’s next for you?
I’m still savoring and enjoying the senior intern experience. After the summer was over I didn’t know what to do, but I decided to do some consulting. I realized I had something to offer, so I put together a proposal. I wrote up what I thought I could do for Pfizer on an ongoing basis. Sally Sussman accepted, and so began my life as a consultant.
I now have one other client, Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Merrill Lynch is where I spent 31 years of my career, so in some way it’s just the perfect future for me right now.
I don’t want to work full-time, or be responsible for everything — as I was for so long in my career –, but I love being able to have a say. It’s liberating to just go in and help shape something. It’s a wonderful way of staying engaged and lively, and learning new things every day: my curiosity is two or three times what it was towards the end of my professional career. That’s my life right now, that’s what’s ahead, and I’m not looking for a lot more than that. That’s enough.