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Managing Longevity in the Workplace

by Guest Writter
Andrew Scott, Professor, London Business School

Long run longevity trends mean that each generation on average lives for up to a decade longer than their parents. The consequence is that current 18 year olds have a more than 50% chance of living beyond 100. However, how we currently structure our career and life is still heavily based around a longevity of 70 years. This is creating a tension in the workplace that will be a growing corporate issue in the decades ahead. Dealing with this longevity, both in your own company and in your own career, will be increasingly important but can too easily be forgotten in the face of pressing short term concerns.

Because life expectancy increases across generations the issues firms face are varied. One current issue is what to do with individuals close to retirement age who want to continue working. Not only are we living longer but we are on average healthier longer. As a consequence many individuals want to continue working beyond retirement age either because they are not ready to step down or because they want to preserve their pension. As a consequence, the idea of retirement being a well defined end is over. Firms are increasingly required to create a systematic set of policies that are transparent and predictable so individuals approaching traditional retirement age know their available options.

Longer life expectancy means a longer working career. For those in their 40s they are currently waking up to the fact that they will have to extend their career into their early or possibly mid 70s. That’s another 25 or 30 years of work. This group will be thinking about what they want to do for the rest of their career or how they can invest in the skills needed for their career to prosper. They will also be thinking of taking time out to reenergise and reorientate and discover what they want to do next. Increasingly firms are offering sabbaticals for mid career breaks as a way of avoiding losing key staff and offering more flexible working schedules so individuals can refocus and rebalance before returning. Focusing on offering genuine learning opportunities that extend their future prospects will be particularly welcome.

As for those in their 20s they face the prospect of a 60 year career. For this group options are important, they are not looking to commit in the way of previous generations. This is why they are starting work later, getting married and having children when they are older and pacing themselves differently. As life extends the age at which individuals take on the traditional trappings of adulthood is pushed back. This group is also aware that theirs will be a multi stage career with many shifts and transitions. A key issue for this group is what are the values and principles that make this multi stage career their own. The consequence is that this is a generation who respond very differently to the traditional structure and incentives of firms.

Longevity is undermining the traditional three stage life of education, work and retirement. A longer life leads to a multi stage life with several different career stages and many transitions. Over this longer life individuals will at different points in time want different work/life balance and will need to continually reinvest in their skills and enthusiasm. Firms are increasingly realising that they cannot afford to offer a corporate pension as a means of recruiting and maintaining good staff. In a multi stage life individuals will however be attracted by a firm that offer flexible working that can shift at different points in time to help individuals preserve their health and skills over a longer life.

Longevity and its implications across the generations will increasingly make challenges of HR policies. It also however has very important consequences for your own career. Increasingly CEOs are thinking about what they do next . Many are interested in a portfolio career with activity spread across a range of activities with a better work/life balance. Others are interested in doing something entrepreneurial or giving something back to society.

A longer life demands a clarity of thinking as to what you want to achieve and how you prepare for it. A portfolio career is not easily achieved and requires substantial prior investment. Another challenge is that many CEOs find it hard to adapt to a new role or miscalculate the demand for what may be very selective skills. Over a longer life you need to be better at dealing with change and transitions and making sure you invest in a network that is varied and not made up of similar people such as yourself. If your network is like you not only will you not be exposed to new ideas you won’t be supported in efforts to change.  It is also crucial to spend time with your family and partner and discuss what it is you want to do next and how you can support one another. Transformations are difficult enough but if they cause surprises or conflict in a close partnership they will not be happy experiences.

As we live longer than our parents we have to make sure we don’t use their careers as the norms to guide us. You will work longer than your parents and need to make sure that this longer career is a productive and good experience. Planning ahead for your next stage, being open to change and investing in networks that support you during a transition are crucial. Too much of our career structure and HR policies reflect a life expectancy of 70 and a technology and a place of work pinned down by the Industrial Revolution. Providing a framework for individuals to construct their own multi stage life will be an important component of recruiting and maintaining a high quality workforce.

About the Author

Andrew Scott is a Professor of Economics at London Business School and with Lynda Gratton is the author of “The 100 Year Life – Living and Working in an Age of Longevity” (Bloomsbury / 2016). To assess how prepared you are for a longer life visit http://www.100yearlife.com/diagnostic/.

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