Roughly a third of babies born today will live to see their 100th birthday, according to mortality projections from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). It’s a remarkable statistic, reflective of the huge advances in healthcare, technology and standards of living experienced by large parts of the global population.
Much discussion takes place around the implications of our lengthening life expectancy on the planet, the economy, on countries and their public services. By comparison, very little consideration is given to how this will change our own individual lives and careers, and our expectations for both.
Things are very different compared with just a few short decades ago. People are leaving education later. They are changing jobs more readily. They are retiring much later or not at all. What would once have been a 30-40 year career in one job, or possibly even one company, may now be a portfolio career of three or four mini-careers, sometimes in completely different sectors.
Many businesses have struggled to adapt to rapid (relatively speaking) changes in the way their employees feel about their working lives. It’s not just the length of people’s careers but the traditional milestones and pressure points that have changed drastically.
Businesses usually focus in the wrong places when trying to understand their workforce. Too often the concern is around the perceived challenges of attracting, retaining and engaging millennials and generation Z, with businesses believing they are an entirely different species to their older counterparts. In actual fact, it’s how people communicate and engage that’s really changed, driven by the lightning-quick evolution of technology. In our experience, the people have not.
Far bigger workforce management challenges exist which businesses should focus on. Midlife pressures, for example, have never been greater. With the average age of first-time parents steadily climbing, employees in their 30s and 40s may be coping with the pressure of looking after a newborn, while also caring for elderly parents. This is one of the reasons why we’re seeing a midlife earnings peak, with many people trading off salary expectations for work that’s more fulfilling and flexible, and which allows them more time with family, young and old.
Many employees are also still in the mindset that they’ll be in broadly the same job in 10 or 20 years’ time, even though the evidence shows that’s unlikely. Many think they’ll be starting to draw their pensions when they’re 60, or have given it no thought whatsoever.
Both businesses and individuals show a real lack of engagement with and understanding of these issues. There needs to be a collective acknowledgement that things have changed and a commitment to changing how we structure our own careers and the careers of those who work with and for us.
For businesses, proactive steps are needed. They need to dedicate more resources to strategic workforce planning – understanding the demographics of their workforce and the changing drivers and pressures affecting them. Instead of hoping the problem goes away then inevitably defaulting to a large-scale redundancy programme further down the line, organisations can help employees through transitional periods, whether that’s through upskilling programmes or flexible contracts or possibly familial support. In most cases, you will see more loyalty and engagement as a result.
As Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott’s incredible book The 100-Year Life explores, a fundamental shift in the way we think about life and work is needed. Educators, employers and employees must think again about what work looks like for people in 2018 and beyond, if we are to remain happy and engaged throughout our ever-lengthening careers and turn a century of life into a blessing, rather than a chore.
Keely Woodley is a partner at Grant Thornton UK