March 6, 2009 02:01 AM

Are Dad Benchmarks Outdated?

Over the years, I‘ve noticed that farmers around my age (boomers, essentially) have a habit of comparing career and personal milestones to those of our fathers. Many of us can recite the age at which Dad began farming on his own, bought ground, married, had his first child, etc.

A few of these markers seem to acquire serious benchmark status for comparison purposes, which can be initiated either by a prodding father ("When I was your age, I had already…") or a competitive son ("We paid off all our land debt five years before…"). I'm not sure why these contrasting events can be so important to us, but as I pass my "dad benchmarks," I mull what they mean.

Perhaps they are tied to the nature of our work relationships with our fathers. My generation will be about the last for whom physical labor will be the primary determinant of success. To be able to match your father bucking bales, for example, was a secret triumph for young men back in the day. Physical labor benchmarks were earned self-congratulatory moments, even if only in the son's mind. Fathers reacted with various degrees of consternation at their own "slipping" and pride in their offspring. Such analogues are rare today.

Personal benchmarks, such as marriage or children, have similarly been swamped by cultural shifts in courtship (if that term still applies) and career/family planning. As such, formerly reliable life landmarks fade into obsolescence, and both generations have difficulty gauging how they are doing.

Final stages. Another powerful benchmark is retirement, at least in families in which retirement is seen as an accomplishment. I frequently pause to note that my father had been retired for about two years at my current age. And I'm not exactly sure what that means to me.

But the real kicker for men is the Final Dad Benchmark —his passing. That number is emblazoned on our hearts and ever available to our anxiety. Psychologists have noted that, when asked how long they think they will live, men tend to guess their father's lifespan. While this may be just an easy default number for individuals who are notoriously uninformed about their own health until forced by malady, I think it is also a fond identification with the mentor with whom we spent so much of our lives. We assume we'll progress like our dads, and finish up like them as well.

But our fathers tended to die much younger for a litany of medical reasons, including the sheer amount of physical labor, general disdain for preventative medical care, widespread smoking and dangerous environments with unshielded machinery and horses.

No signposts. Consequently, many boomers have slipped past or soon will slip past that benchmark age and find themselves in somewhat uncharted territory. I suspect we will not navigate it gracefully without the immediate examples of conduct we used to like to emulate (or avoid). This predicament becomes more pronounced when we calculate how much longer we might live, thanks to bypass operations and prostate tests.

Lack of such a paradigm and the mental changes that occur with age are becoming a huge factor in succession issues. I have friends who have never known a male antecedent to retire, simply because none of them lived long enough.

Generations of relatively vigorous oldsters will be inventing new benchmarks to be noted carefully by younger farmers. Absent any archetype of what the latter part of life can look like, and exacerbated by wealth-destroying economic conditions, I'm predicting a massive traffic jam on the rungs of the ladder of success.

One possible accommodation oncoming farmers might want to consider is to lengthen their goal time-table. My sons may need to add a five- to 10-year increment to the benchmarks I leave in order for them to be useful comparisons.

I suspect that piling up enough wealth to retire at 50 may be revealed as a cultural "outlier" that worked only for a unique cohort such as my father's, as the Ponzi-scheme nature of Social Security and Medicare made the instigators the big winners. Given this outlook, it might be a good idea to recheck all our dad benchmarks for applicability to 21st-century farms.

John Phipps,, is a sixth-generation farmer from Chrisman, Ill. He is the TV host of "U.S. Farm Report." For local station listings, log on to

Top Producer, March 2009

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