Living to 100: how longevity will transform your work life

Lynda Gratton

As longevity extends and the way we work is transformed, a new work-life model is replacing the traditional career path of the past.

Those 55- to 65-year-old employees within your organisation have mostly followed a typical three-stage path involving education, career and retirement. It is a pattern with which the corporate world has become familiar and comfortable.

Lynda Gratton believes this pattern is about to be smashed to pieces. Gratton, a professor of management practice at London Business School, is widely acknowledged as one of the world’s top business thinkers, and she has spent the past three years modelling work and life in an age of longevity. Out of that work, she has co-written The 100-Year Life with economist Andrew Scott.

Gratton explains that corporations in advanced economies are currently built to suit “Jack”, a man in his 70s who followed the three-stage path outlined above. But those same businesses are fast filling with people such as “Jane” – 20 years old, just starting her career and facing a very different journey. Jack can be expected to live to 84; Jane will live closer to 100.

For a person like Jane, says Gratton, that means working into your late 70s or early 80s. In modelling such a life, she concluded that Jane’s life would need to have a different structure.

“We quickly realised the three-stage life – education, work, retirement – was impossible,” she says. “Who can work from 21 to 75 non-stop?” 

Gratton and her colleagues began to look at work types, family relationships and leisure time and the repercussions for governments and corporations.

We think people are going to be much more thoughtful about building portfolios where they do multiple things.”  Lynda Gratton, London Business School

Businesses face big changes. Gratton’s Jack worked in maybe three companies during his career, while wife Jill brought up children. He retired at 63 and died at 75. For Jane, even if she has a partner for life, they will both work full-time. She will work in an environment with artificial intelligence and robotics. She will likely re-skill and change careers along the way. 

“Corporations are still built for Jack,” says Gratton, “but they have to start being built for Jane.”

HR and the six-stage life

As modelled by Gratton, some of Jane’s scenarios have not just three but up to six life/career stages.

“Some of those are new,” says Gratton. “For instance, we expect more people to be independent producers at some stage of their career. They will work either on their own or in a small team, because these amazing technology platforms that are being built will allow people to do so quite easily.”

As well as the likelihood of Jane spending some of her career as a freelancer, she may well decide to travel during her career or return to education to upskill, re-skill or re-learn, notes Gratton.

“We think people are going to be much more thoughtful about building portfolios where they do multiple things,” she says. “People are already doing that, but I don’t think it has emerged as a recognised stage.”

How will this fit into work and education environments, which many older people today suspect contain a level of ageism? Gratton believes this negative attitude towards older people in workplaces and educational institutions will naturally break down on its own. Today, we think about age and life stages in a particular way: if you go to university, you must be 21 years old; if you are travelling extensively, you must be on a gap year. 

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In a world of greater longevity, she says, this “age equals stage” mentality will no longer apply. “One of the implications of longevity is that people will be more comfortable with those of different ages.” 

Gratton is seeing this happen right now within her own life experience.

“I’m 61, and if I think about myself at this age and my grandmother at 61 – she was old. But at 61, I am working here at London Business School with a lot of peers who are in their 30s. We dress the same and we talk about some of the same things. My colleagues wouldn’t define me by age. As people of different ages engage in the same activity, you find the friction between ages decreases.”

Workplace implications

The increase in Jane’s longevity, coupled with the rampant pace of technological advancement, introduces new challenges for workplaces. Consider mentoring, where Gratton notes we have traditionally expected the more experienced staff member to mentor the younger employee. 

If a 65-year-old lacks certain technology skills, then the 25-year-old becomes the mentor, so the mentoring process must become two-way.

“Managing the career of Jack is now relatively straightforward,” Gratton reflects, “and that’s why quite a lot of it has been outsourced. Developing it for Jane is a lot more difficult and will require more skills and a much more individualised way of thinking about practices and processes.”

A version of this interview originally appeared in the Australian Human Resources Institute’s HR Monthly magazine.

How to prepare for the journey

Lynda Gratton’s work suggests you need to take note of five work-life trends:

1. Plan to work into your 80s (yes, your 80s)

If you want to retire on 50 per cent of your income and save less than 20 per cent of your salary, this will be inevitable. Don’t believe government projections; for good or ill, you will need to work much longer than you think. Longevity and the issues it creates – for government and corporations, as well as for you – may be a major preoccupation in your life.

2. Focus on your intangible assets

As working lives change and people work for much longer, you’ll need to build your intangible assets, such as networks, friendships and skills. In addition, transferable skills will be crucial as industries undergo important structural changes.

3. Prepare for transformation

The notion of the traditional three-phase life – education, work and retirement – is increasingly becoming outdated. The idea that we can condense our life milestones (education, job, family) into the first half of our life and then retire in the second half is not reflective of our greater longevity.

To keep working, you will need to undertake education at different stages of your life and be prepared to continually adapt to a rapidly changing workforce throughout your career. 

4. Think hard about your skills

The capacity to transform yourself and your skills throughout your life will be absolutely crucial. The types of jobs available will change. Artificial intelligence (AI) will replace some; driverless cars, for example, may become the norm. IBM’s Watson, an AI program, is trained across many different roles, including quite sophisticated ones such as cancer diagnosis. Non-routine jobs requiring creativity, cognitive complexity and analytics will be the ones where machines make least impact.

5. Balance work and home

Charles Handy coined the term “portfolio life” in his 1989 book, The Age of Unreason. The portfolio life refers to one that has less delineation between work, family and interests. Gratton refers to the energy cycle between work and home and suggests that it needs to be a positive rather than “caustic” cycle, given the length of a working life.

 The relationship between the corporation and the individual has moved from parent-child to adult-adult, and it will be up to individual adults to create the life they desire.

– Nada Jolic

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