Was Cameron Clyne right to retire at just 46?



Cameron Clyne, CEO of National Australia Bank for the past five years, surprised markets last week by retiring at the ripe old age of 46.

While he described his job as the most rewarding role of his career, he said it had taken a personal toll and it was time to step away from a demanding, executive role. What can we take from such a decision? A couple of things, I think.

Mr Clyne is one of a long line of public figures who say they want to spend more time with family as they retire from political or corporate life. One could be forgiven for thinking we were in the midst of a 21st century family reformation: men stepping up to the joys, pleasures, hard work and sometime boredom of household life, and a parallel corporate transformation that welcomes senior leaders’ participation in parenthood alongside their jobs, over the course of their life.

There are no signs that we are in the midst of a rush by dad’s to take on the full-time carer role at home, while their spouse heads out to work.

While there is no suggestion of it in Mr Clyne’s case, men’s sudden departure from public life to ‘spend more time with family’ is sometimes code for something else: a dignified way to cloak a sacking, scandal, exhaustion or marital breakup.

The decision to spend more time with family is surely the unimpeachable sign of a virtuous man taking his turn at home? However, board appointments, long lunches, and the busy phone are probably more likely than long tenure at the nappy bucket, school gate or kitchen bench. Serious home duties are not always on the agenda of the retiring male leader.

Sometimes it feels like every one of these public warriors who take a turn to the family is featured in a special newspaper spread, celebrating their heroic choice. Surely there are millions of them by now?

Executive dad

Executive dads

However, compared to the thousands of unsung care heroes (mostly women who every day take on the main burden of care work – whether of children, old people or people with disabilities), these much-sung corporate and political visitors to the homeland are few in number.

According to 2011 ABS data only 7.4 per cent of the half million or so single earner Australian families with children under 15 have a father at home while the woman of the household has a job.

There are no signs that we are in the midst of a rush by dad’s to take on the full-time carer role at home, while their spouse heads out to work.

What is more, very few fathers and their households have the economic resources to take a decision to retire at 46 like Mr Clyne. They are locked into households that rely on two earners, and for many men this means long working hours and lengthy commutes. Indeed the average hours of fathers of preschoolers have lengthened rather than shortened in recent decades. And seven out of 10 working mothers in these dual-earner households feel very rushed and pressed for time most days.

Unrealistic expectations

The second theme arising from Clyne’s example is the extreme form of work we expect from our male corporate and political leaders – and the few women who join them.

We do not take a life-course or ‘reasonable-hours’ approach to leadership – that is, expect leaders who experience predictable major life events (like kids, ageing parents, or their own health and family issues) to take time away from demanding jobs, or to work reasonable hours. We condemn people to career suicide if they take these events seriously, and step away from paid work or excessive hours, to take care of themselves of others for a period of time.

As a result we have constructed leadership of our major public institutions in an extreme image. Many very capable, fine potential leaders – men and women, but especially women who bear most care in our societies – turn away from leadership in our country. Once off the escalator of uninterrupted extreme working life, they can never step back onto it. We pay a huge price for this perversion of public life. We lose good people to public life and we are led by people who don’t get school gates, kitchen benches or what it takes to be there for an ageing parent over the long haul. Poor public policy is sometimes the price.

It will be a good day when a bank leader retiring at 46 does not make headlines for a return to family life, and when the terms of leadership do not exact such an intolerable cost that one has to give it up, rather than dip in and out of a contributing leadership life – one that is enriched by family work and care, rather than killed off by it.

Barbara Pocock is Director of the Centre for Work + Life at the University of South Australia.

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