Would you like to know the exact day of your death? Most people I’ve asked answer no. Yet it is information that most countries and companies, as well as the other half of your couple, might benefit from getting. I read of a website that would help, and bravely answered the five questions on Deathclock.com. It gave me the one answer that I was truly unprepared for… by announcing I would die aged 106! Like many of my peers, I had thought I could gently start thinking about retirement in my mid-50s. This simple game jolted me to ask: What if I lived much, much longer than I had been planning for?
Half the children born today have a 50% chance of living to 105. That’s up from 1% a century ago. While the debate about exactly how long we can hope to live rages on, it’s likely to be a lot longer than any of us are prepared for. And as our lifespan extends, so our ‘healthspan’ is likely also to improve, leaving us healthier, both physically and mentally, for much longer. This has implications for every dimension of life – but one of the things it will impact most is our current conception, definition, and expectations of what a career looks like.
Most of the jobs today’s schoolchildren will occupy do not yet exist. Artificial intelligence, robots, and technology will contribute to their creation. What we do know is that the pace of change continues to accelerate, while our time on earth stretches ever longer. We will be running faster for longer than ever before in human history, changing our footwear regularly to keep up with our peers and our times. We better start training. I can guarantee only one thing: if we aren’t fit for the marathon, it won’t be much fun.
The Old Sprint
We used to have a few simple phases to existence: childhood, education, work, and retirement. Careers used to come in standardized shapes. People went from a good school to a good company, worked hard, shimmied up a career ladder, and felt they had earned a golf or cruise-filled few years of retirement before becoming truly old.
This may never have been a terribly accurate picture of the reality of most people’s working lives, but it is the model behind much of the career management still going on in many companies today. And it became the archetype of a successful career. Its basic characteristics were a linear progression upwards through the hierarchy, unbroken by pauses or interruptions. If you weren’t going up, you were likely on your way out.
This resulted in a decade-by-decade arc with predictable career phases to what would be considered ‘success’:
- 20s: hard work, diligence, and learning
- 30s: acceleration, high potential fast-tracking, mobility and stretch jobs
- 40s: scaling big jobs and responsibilities in breadth and/ or depth
- 50s: leadership, partnership
- 60s: governance, retirement, elder statesperson
The reality is that this career pattern only ever fit the lives of the men who designed them in the 20th century for a male-dominated, single-earner workforce. Since then, we’ve been struggling to adjust. First, it was the system that dominated, and people struggled with the expectation of having to fit into it. Lately, it’s the system that is struggling, as more and more people refuse to conform.
Longer Races, New Decades
As lives lengthen, at least two new decades have been gifted to humans and their working lives. Entirely new phases of adulthood have emerged. My son, who is in his mid-20s, is typical. After graduating from college, he moved abroad to work for a start-up in Africa. He is at the very beginning of his life: exploring the world, delaying the kind of emotional or physical settling down which, a generation ago, would have been the norm at his age. This whole decade is an entirely new phase, referred to as ‘emerging adulthood’. This phase is something experts suggest may be a normal extension of learning and experimentation for a species living in an ever more complex world.
The 20s have become a time of discovery, exploration, and travel. Millennials are famously impatient, curious and disloyal. They are also now the biggest generational cohort on the planet. Tech savvy and comfortable with virtual, global connections, they are telling many corporate recruiters that they aren’t interested in the supposedly ‘fast-track’ careers that take 30 years to peak, sound stultifyingly linear and siloed into a single function, and where they will get responsibility once they have proven themselves, in a decade or so. Nonetheless, the 20s remain a crucial, formative time argues Meg Jay in The Defining Decade. What you learn – or don’t – in that period will heavily impact the shape of your subsequent decades.
The 50s and early 60s were long seen to be a career peak, the pay-off for decades of effort and investment. Senior teams in companies are dominated by the grey-haired, who expected the younger folk to work as hard as they had, for as long as they had. As lives lengthen, however, increasingly fit and active fifty-year-olds are discovering they may have several more decades of working life ahead. A whole new life phase, where the children have become independent, the mortgage is paid off and they can start (re)thinking about the purpose of their lives at this third age. Some will be tempted by golf and cruises; many more will be devoting themselves to causes and projects they can finally focus on. ‘Giving back’ may go mainstream, fueled by the wisdom of an engaged and knowledgeable generation of long-living Baby Boomers.
Most striking, women have become significantly more likely to work into their 60s and even 70s, often full time – because they want to. Nearly 30% of American women 65 to 69, the first big wave of professionals, are working (15% in the late ‘80s), and 18% of 70 – 74 year-olds (from 8%) writes Harvard economist Claudia Goldin. Men’s employment after age 60 has also risen, since about 1994, but not as steeply as women’s. Double the percentage of men (60%) men 60 – 64 work, although that number is not increasing as fast. A similar increase is happening across developed countries, according to the OECD.
In my late-50s, I am enjoying this new phase of adult development. I’m working on fascinating changes in interesting companies, recently moved to a new country and remarried. I’m developing ideas for new services in new areas and issues. A generation ago, someone my age would have been gently slowing down, while I, and many of my cohort, feel like we’re just at the beginning of the second half of life. I am a typical example of what marketing expert Marti Barletta calls PrimeTime Women: tasting freedom and maturity, often for the first time. The children are grown and gone. I am as free as my son, with a bit more savings on the side. Our decades strangely resemble each other – and have big implications for how individuals and companies may want to rethink a whole host of issues, from career management and pensions to mobility and leadership criteria.
A Range of New Runners
The linear, unbroken career model shaped everyone’s idea of what success looked like, when it arrived, and how it was achieved. Exceptions were not welcome. The homogeneity and dominance of the model meant that many populations were eliminated somewhere along the journey. This is slowly changing as the size and significance of these groups grow:
- Millenials: Younger people, particularly the brightest and best, aren’t buying the old corporate career model. It doesn’t attract them, and it doesn’t retain them. They aren’t as ready as their parents were to put their heads to the grindstone for a decade in the hope of earning a plum promotion. In addition, a lot of companies are flattening their hierarchies, so vertical promotions up a fast-disappearing hierarchy may be hard to design. They are looking for companies that recognize this, and offer them learning, variety, mobility, flexibility, and work/ life balance. Underline flexibility. Millennials can’t breathe without it.
- Women: Women have long been penalized by the traditional career path’s over-focus on the early 30s as a time of high-potential identification, acceleration, and potential-testing through bigger and more visible roles. The clash between traditional corporate timelines and women’s traditional parenting pressures has for too long eliminated many women from the leadership pipeline. This has resulted in the first-ever dip in women’s participation in the US labor force. The only time when women are less likely to be working than in previous generations: their late 30s and early 40s. They hang on as long as they can, then drop in frustration. Increasingly, men taking their parenting roles seriously are also bumping into this mostly unaddressed conflict. But as careers stretch out across the decades, the relative weight of parental roles will shrink, and straight, unbroken career trajectories will no longer be the norm against which all others are compared.
- Perennials: Lengthening careers will see the number of people working into their 70s and 80s grow. For the moment, many companies still have mandated retirement ages, sometimes as young as the now-youthful 65. Ageism is alive and well, and the value and knowledge of experienced employees are often thrown out as expensive luxuries during restructurings. This is not helped by some pension systems still based on final pay, which discourages end-of-career flexibility. Talent shortages in aging societies will mean that more companies will want to retain older staff, and the likelihood is that we will see late-career phases develop with more part-time, consulting or advisory roles. Many senior staffers want to stay involved, they just don’t want to continue the relentless 24/7 pace of their younger years.
These are not small, insignificant groups. Since 2015, millennials represent the largest share of the US labor force. Women are 60% of today’s global university graduates and 52% of management and professional employees in the US. Seniors have decades of experience and organizational knowledge. The sum of these three segments is now the majority of the US workforce. Their preferences and need for greater flexibility, in a tightening and aging labor market, will likely blow the old models away.
How to Prepare? Get Good Footwear, Replace Regularly
Marathoners run every day – and change their shoes every 300 to 500 miles. We are going to develop a similar attitude to our brains, our brands and our skills. The best preparation for careers today is to see them as a constant strengthening of muscles and grit, with a strong support system resting on the latest innovative gear.
The 100-Year Life proposes a fitness audit for lengthening careers. They focus on three areas to be strengthened to guarantee agility, resilience, and balance for the long haul. Any athlete would identify. Soon we may all need to become career athletes. (I’ve renamed their categories to fit my metaphor, apologies to the authors!)
- Body: Knowledge, skills, professional social capital, reputation & brand
- Heart: Health, relationships, love, regenerative friendships, balance
- Attitude: Self-knowledge, diverse networks, openness to experience
The Body assets keep you relevant, employed and valued. The Heart assets build health and resilience through relationships. The Attitude assets give you the flexibility to be agile and adaptive in the face of an unpredictable future. A good balance between the three covers the definition of a good life: something to do, someone to love and something to hope for.
In addition, we will want to learn to re-learn and be open to repetitive re-training. Lifelong learning will become an essential part of adult development. We will move from the old, three-phase pattern of education-work-retirement to a multi-phased approach where education is a regular transitional pivot between multiple and more varied careers. There will be no more retirement in our newly discovered primes. Many people will continue working because they want to, not (just) because they must.
From Recreation to Re-Creation
In the US, more than 4.5 million people between 50 and 70 have already added a purpose-oriented phase to their previously profit-focused careers, according to a survey by Encore.org, an association specialized in late careers. Another 21 million plan to join them.
These are the harbingers of The Age of No Retirement, the name of a new UK non-profit that is encouraging a new ‘age agnosticism’ in thinking about life and work. Don’t throw out those shoes!
Universities are experimenting with becoming transition platforms for elders. Both Harvard and Stanford have launched programs resembling a gap year for the over-50 crowd. The idea is “a new third stage in higher education designed to prepare experienced leaders to take on new challenges in the social sector where they potentially can make an even greater societal impact than they did in their careers.” It’s a rebranding of ‘retirement’ into what is being called the #ModernElder movement. For the moment, these are small, selective programs aimed at the highly successful, but they will likely spread and democratize (see the Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute / or Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Institute)
Running With Loved Ones
Lengthening careers may also shift the conversations that many couples have at home about priorities and pacing. To date, dual-career couples have had to make tough choices on whose career comes first, who follows whom on mobility assignments, and who takes care of the kids. The pressure from companies to prioritize work without pause is potent. As the career penalty of parenting lessens (see above), couples may feel freer to make new sorts of choices. One might imagine one partner taking some time in their 30s to parent, and serenely letting the other’s career lead momentarily. Then alternating, as we are seeing some women starting to do, accelerating careers a bit older while the former ‘lead spouse’ becomes the secondary career. We are also seeing this traditional gendered pacing flip, with women taking up the major breadwinner role, as well as an increase in single-parent realities. The idea that dual careers could be planned over decades with complementary rather than competing priorities and timelines would be a boon to many ambitious but stressed-out families (especially in the US, now the only developed country without legally required paid maternity, let alone paternity or parental leave).
Yesterday, companies were reluctant to employ both halves of a couple, fearing issues of nepotism. Tomorrow, they may shift to managing “family” careers by strategically choosing to hire both people. This would be a rational response to the rise of “assortative mating,” where smart, educated people are increasingly marrying people like them, creating a new form of power couple, with high combined family incomes, far greater resilience to change, reduced international mobility, and greater negotiating power vis-a-vis employers.
It may prove a lot easier to manage dual career couples when they both work for you. For many of the larger multinationals with big graduate training programs, many people end up marrying a colleague anyway. Embracing this fact, and working with it, rather than ignoring or discouraging it, could optimize and encourage the skills of two people, rather than enmeshing them in today’s often painful trade-offs and choices between whose career should “take the lead” and who should “follow.” It would boost the attractiveness of many an employer.
Individuals will want to become strong and flexible transitionists, able to take change and disruption in their stride. How should companies adjust? By adapting to a whole new race. My next two articles will dig into the individual and corporate adjustments to come.