PRIMETIME An uneasy retirement

Working for your child can be an awkward role

By John Leland

New York Times News Service

In his home in Weehawken, N.J., Doug Harmon stopped what he was doing to take a call from his boss. Harmon, 59, is a former computer consultant who retired in 2001. His boss is his daughter.

For father and daughter, who had never been close, the working arrangement changed both their family and professional lives.


"At first my ego came into play at her being the boss," said Harmon, who came out of retirement to work for his daughter, Laine Caspi, when she started a baby accessories business in 2002. He works without pay. "I thought, 'Who is she to tell me what to do?"' Harmon said. "'How can my daughter be giving me orders?' I never said anything. But that ego lessened over time."

In the patchwork quilt of American retirement, few arrangements offer greater potential for reward or catastrophe than that of parents going to work for their children. As more retirees say they want to return to the workplace, and as more of their children operate small businesses in need of sporadic -- and preferably free -- labor, what was once a rare role reversal is becoming more common and desirable, say some experts who work with retirees and family businesses.

"I'm seeing more of it, and it's fraught with peril," said Paul Sessions, director of the Center for Family Business at the University of New Haven, who helps families navigate the pitfalls. "One man asked me, 'Do you guys teach how to kill your father off?' " Sessions said. "That was a situation that didn't work out well."

More common

Retired parents who work for their children are part of a sweeping change in the way workers are approaching retirement. Compared with earlier generations, workers are reaching their '60s healthier and with longer lives ahead of them, in jobs that are less physically demanding and more suitable to extended careers.

In a 2003 survey conducted for AARP, 68 percent of workers age 50 to 70 said they expected to continue to work or never retire at all.

"There is a great deal of evidence that older workers want to slow down rather than stop work," said Yung-Ping Chen, a professor of gerontology at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

Some remain in high-stress careers, or are able to switch to part-time work. Others brave the job market, pitching themselves to strangers who might be half their age. And for still others there is the path of high-stakes family drama: working for their children.


Though no one keeps statistics on how many parents work for their children, "on an anecdotal basis there are lots of examples," said Ronald J. Manheimer, executive director of the North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.

A bit bumpy

The results are not always smooth, Manheimer added. "With the mixture of family issues and money, and son- and daughter-in-laws mixing in, it's a little like 'The Godfather,"' he said.

Sessions of the Center for Family Business said that he is often called in to help companies in which a parent does not accept a supporting role. "On one side, you have parents who think they really know what's going on, watching their kids make what they see as a major mistake," Sessions said. "And on the other side, for the kids, it's very hard to make decisions that run counter to their parents, even when they believe these decisions are best for the business." In between, he added, employees are often divided in their loyalties.

These cases can end unhappily in court, rupturing both the family and the business, Sessions said, adding, "Or they can be wonderfully rewarding."

Miller and Leslie Siegel have lived through both conflicts and rewards. When they turned over their family jewelry business to their two sons 15 years ago, they had no intention of leaving. They simply expected to scale back, leaving the big decisions to the next generation.

"If we didn't have a family business where we could work I don't know what we'd do -- volunteer, I suppose," said Leslie Siegel, 84, who manages the gift department. "I don't want to stop working. I've seen too many people our age go downhill when they stop working."

But instead of easing into his less demanding role, Miller Siegel at first bucked at the decisions his sons made. "I used to get in fights with one of my children," said Miller Siegel, who is now 87 and still working three days a week.


His resistance did not last, however.

"I decided life was too short," he said. "I quit fighting, and I let them make the decisions. They made some mistakes I wouldn't have made, but that's the way it goes. It makes for nicer living. We have a pleasant relationship."

After some early battles, said Joel Siegel, 53, the company vice president, his parents "have been very good at backing away and backing down."

"They've been aware of the older generation in other family businesses hanging on too long and chasing the kids out," Joel Siegel said, "so they're aware of the need to step back." His parents, he said, gave the company a feeling of continuity and added their experience and knowledge.

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