From Linear Sprint to Multiple Marathons: Careers in the Age of Longevity

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-fifties. This simple game jolted me to ask: What if I lived much, much longer than I had been planning for?

So did reading a book called The 100 Year Life, by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott. Half the children born today, they say, 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 to 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, 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, first in Haiti, then in Senegal. 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 twenties 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 twenties remain a crucial, formative time argues Meg Jay in The Defining Decade. What you learn – or don’t – in your twenties 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%) say Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz. 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 mid-50s, I am enjoying this new phase of adult development. Like my son, I’m exploring the world, have moved to a new country and am recently remarried. I’m developing ideas for new businesses, focusing on 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 Prime Time 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 just can’t breathe without it.
  • Women: Women have long been penalised 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, younger 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 is 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.

U.S. Labor Force by Generation, 1995-2015

How Can Individuals 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 productive assets keep you relevant, employed and valued. The vitality assets build health and resilience through relationships. The transitional 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 specialised 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 lessons (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.

In conclusion, 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.

What Can Companies Do? Become Super Coaches of Runners

Ageing societies may become an inter-generational delight rather than the dreaded, lonely dystopia many fear. What role can companies play and how can they benefit from the trends? If individuals become athletic transitionists, companies may want to think of themselves as the emotionally intelligent coach of their inter-generational customers and talent. Here are three suggestions to make your company fit for longevity: flex careers, embrace emotion, and include modern elders in the run.

Flex Careers

Some companies are recognizing that a more gender-balanced, generationally-mixed and tech-enabled talent pool requires a rethink of career phases. Deloitte is an early pioneer in introducing the concept of “mass career customisation.” They encourage employees to share their short- and longer-term preferences around key factors (pace, role, workload, location and schedule) on which they then manage careers. This is available on a simple central database, facilitating staffing and eliminating difficult career conversations for which too many bosses have neither the time nor the appetite.

Other companies are working at broadening the age of talent identification so that it becomes age agnostic. You can become high-potential at any age and stage, and allow performance to blossom and be recognised at any stage. This is often accompanied by transparency around job openings, and online job boards. In companies where even the most senior job openings are made public, the number of applications from non-traditional candidates immediately increases. That means more millennials, women and elders.

Companies can encourage lifelong learning by offering a range of developmental support, self-assessment tools, coaching and mentoring programs that support individual transitions, skills upgrades, or external secondments to acquire new skills, extend networks, or work on engagement-enhancing causes. It also includes sabbaticals, employee alumni programs, and returnships. If all this sounds like too much, think again. There are already companies using all of these tools to attract and retain talent.

Companies have worked hard to replace their hierarchical ‘pyramids’ with more responsive, networked ‘pomegranate’ structures. One of the challenges is getting people’s mindsets to shift from the old, vertical ‘up or out’ ladder and find other ways to motivate and engage employees. Some larger companies have been replacing the ‘ladder’ with a ‘lattice,’ developing employees across businesses, countries and functions. This is popular among marathon runners, because they know they are building muscle for the long haul – and that there are a lot of attractive runs within a single employer structure. That’s often a lot more motivating than money, a carrot that is often over-valued, as Dan Pink described in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. He proves persuasively that managers underestimate people’s drive to do things “because they’re interesting, because they’re fun, because we like them, because they contribute.” I would add flexibility to this list: because we are trusted to do them well, wherever and whenever we do them. A recent Manpower survey reveals that flexibility is one of the three top job choice criteria.

It also means creating a culture which appreciates and rewards managers who let their best talent go, to be developed elsewhere. This is rare in companies where middle managers have been squeezed to the bone. Change takes a bit of bandwidth and emotional skills.

Embrace Emotion: Change vs. Transition

The difference between change and transition is an emotional one. Companies need managers who understand the difference, and can accompany people through both.

Sometimes people choose to change – a job, a partner or a life. Sometimes change happens to people, whether they want it or not. The latter is much tougher – many employees will be forced to adapt to unwanted change blowing through their jobs, sectors or countries. It takes emotional muscle and maturity to transition to a new role, identity or skill. It all happens inside, so there are no rewards or applause. The biggest challenge in most people’s lives isn’t besting the rest, but getting the better of themselves. Managers can have a huge impact on people’s ability to thrive through change.

I often do an exercise with leadership teams where I ask them to physically position themselves along a ‘change edge,’ a triangle shape on the floor separating ‘today’ from ‘tomorrow.’ It’s not usually clear what tomorrow looks like, and levels of uncertainty are sky high in many companies. I ask them how it feels where they are standing. Leaders are used to doing rational analyses to explain where they are headed and why. They are not used to explaining what it feels like, for them or for their teams. Are they impatient and excited, or anxious and overwhelmed? Then I ask them to move again – to where they consider their teams to be, and get them to explain what it feels like there – and how their boss’s emotions impact them. Usually, it’s a lot less comfortable, and there is a lot more stress about what’s changing and why. And they suddenly realise their own unacknowledged emotions may be impeding their teams’ ability to change.

Leaders are usually good at motivating themselves to train and run their own marathons – that’s how they got to where they are. Getting others to stretch that far takes emotional competence. Do you know how to ‘kiss people’ over change edges, so they end up visibly fitter and faster? Or do you hope that if you run out ahead, they will intuit the rules of the race and fall in step behind you? Is that how you identify leadership? From the discussion that serves as a debrief, executives quickly understand that getting people to change requires meeting them where they are. You need to know their emotional start position, and literally step into their shoes. No wonder so much leadership training now includes coaching skills.

Every athlete understands the importance of emotion and mindset to their success. Emotion is still an undervalued muscle in management – and in business schools. Yet it is especially relevant when the task becomes mass customizing adaption to change. As transitions and change become more abrupt and profound, we will not only need to become skilled transitionists ourselves. We must also become great coaches of those we want to run with or after us.

This role is characterized by ‘generativity,’ the role of wise elder. The idea of passing the baton on to the next generation, handing wisdom over for their turn in the race. Not many companies are valuing their ‘elders’ yet. They are still too busy nudging what they see as their expensive ‘elderly’ out the door. Ageism will become a significant obstacle to performance if it isn’t intentionally attended to, especially in very youth-oriented sectors like technology. In addition to nationality and gender balance, the balance of generations will become a measure of high-performing teams and companies. There are overlaps between these issues, especially for multinational companies: some countries are aging, others are youth-dominated. Education is feminising, so millennial employees may skew female, while boomer executives skew male. A savvy balance will power innovation across huge new customer segments.

Get Modern Elders in the Running

Elders are not only an issue on the talent side of the equation. For many companies, they are a growing customer segment. The majority of wealth and assets in the US today is held by 50–65-year-olds, half of them women. Yet 95%of advertising revenue is aimed at people under 35. And 93% of creative ad directors are men. The media and the message aren’t tailored to the part of the market with the highest disposable income, who spend more than the average consumer in nearly every category. This is a big business opportunity, waiting to be served.

The last of the baby boomers turned 50 in 2014 – some 77 million people. The 2010 Census shows the over-50 age group is, for the first time, the largest in terms of size and percent of the population in the U.S. They have $2.4 trillion in annual income,  and account for 42% of all US after-tax income. (Consumer Expenditure Survey). They have a net worth three times that of younger generations (Economic Policy Institute) and spend some $157 billion on trips every year (NextAvenue). Women are the still the major purchasing decision-makers in this segment, so companies will want to pay particular attention to Boomer women.

Companies who want to connect with the huge and growing market of modern elders will want to keep a significant gender and generational balance in their leadership and marketing teams. It is hard to anticipate and connect with elders if you haven’t got any in your senior teams. Companies committed to customer-centricity will also want to integrate a generational representation which reflects the consumers they aim to serve.

Like gender issues, this will not only affect markets historically associated with the elderly, like health care, travel and home remodeling. Given the size of this market, it will affect every sector, including technology, education and financial services. All have much to gain by ensuring that their product and service offerings integrate an intentional inclusion of the preferences of the senior segment.

A Final Note – on Love

Why am I writing about love in a piece about careers? Because longer lives will mean more transitions of all kinds – through different selves, different companies, and probably through different partners too. Transitions at home have a significant impact on careers and work as I discovered writing my latest book, on Late Love. Managers have traditionally been taught to ignore people’s personal lives, and compartmentalise ‘work’ and ‘life.’ The term “work/ life” itself, sadly puts these two into a strange opposition. We have been ready to let work encroach on life, the reverse is still suspect. It is time to re-integrate the personal and the professional – humans won’t survive the multiple marathons ahead otherwise.

Smart companies recognise that people have life transitions, not just career transitions – and support them through both. Because they are transferable skills. Great leaders are those who have not only succeeded, but who have loved and lost, and lived to share their learning. Ignoring the personal can cost more than integrating it, as shareholders have been discovering after some bitter divorce cases. I have been specifically requested, as a coach, to focus on professional issues, when the executive’s top priority is transitioning through major personal changes. Great companies will want to give their talent support across a range of transitions, including everything from career and life coaching, to mindfulness and stress management. It pays off. For the moment, this is still heavily concentrated at the senior levels. But the marathon requires coaches along the road to avoid injuring crucial muscles and tendons. Companies say they want employees to bring their ‘whole selves’ to work. Most people are running with a lot of fellow travellers in their hearts and minds. Embrace it.

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So where are you on your career marathon? Whether you are just warming up at the starting line, or a long way down the road, the only thing you can count on is more change before the finish line. So just remember: stretch your skills, flex your muscles and change your shoes. Repeatedly. Ready?

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