HP alums get nothing...and love it

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Monday's New York Times had a good story about retired HP employees serving the company in a variety of ways. The work is unpaid, and that's fine by these folks -- a group ranging from still-very-vital college professors in their early '60's, right on up to guys in their '90s (some of whom retired wealthy through years of HP stock accumulation), who recall lunching with Mssrs. Hewlett and Packard themselves.

If it's not about the money, and knowing that many of these people have other (paying) things to do, what gives? Particularly when you read that the work can include Saturdays at Circuit City touting HP laptops to listless aisle crawlers.

It's about social connection. During our working lives, and I'd argue even more in retirement, we need to feel like we belong to something bigger than ourselves.

When people get more involved with their houses of worship when they retire, it's not necessarily because they've suddenly seen the light. It's more about the institution and the social system it provides.

Many of these former HP'ers were accustomed to working long and hard, and got more than a paycheck in return. They found in their company a community where they fit in, and where they felt wanted. Speaking more broadly about companies instituting emeritus programs similar to HPs, the Times reporter, Matt Richtel, put it well: "They [these companies] are taking advantage of not only their [former employees'] expertise, but also their desire to stay involved and engaged with the world through work."

HP is tapping an unusually huge fund of goodwill, built up over decades by the company's founders, during times when even the tech-minded were careerists. Richtel retells a well-known anecdote about workers receiving a baby blanket from Packard's wife, Lucile, on the birth of a child. (The occasional backrub from a Google masseuse may be nice, but really can't compete.)

When it comes to our social lives, in retirement, family is not enough. Save for the notable exception of a spouse or partner, we don't choose family, nor do we necessarily want, or need, to spend markedly more time with certain relatives once we retire. If Cousin Louie never did it for you all these years, don't think spending more time with him, now that you have it, is the cure.

We do, however, get to choose our friends and acquaintances, and are free to engage in the bigger social circles that work best for us. For most of us, what's familiar is what feels, and works best. So when the likes of a company like HP that knew how to treat a person comes calling, it's no wonder there are takers, gratis. While not a single penny may change hands, it's a transaction that pays both sides richly.

Michael Burnham is CEO of My Next Phase, a consulting firm offering non-financial retirement planning products and services (www.mynextphase.com).

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