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The HR implications of living in an age of longevity

6 Aug 2021 By Maranda Ridgway and Cathy Brown

People professionals have a key role to play as the workforce lives and works for longer, say Maranda Ridgway and Cathy Brown

The idea of the ‘100-year life’ was coined by Professors Gratton and Scott of London Business School in their 2016 book of the same name. Five years on, the message is no less stark. Notwithstanding the devastating effect of the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly on older members of society, the ONS predicts that by 2050, 25 per cent of the population will be over 65, an age group that is growing faster than any other. Indeed, the ONS also projects that 23 per cent of newborn boys and 28 per cent of newborn girls born today will live to 100 years old. 

While increasing longevity should be celebrated, it has a significant effect on the economy, services and wider society, with people needing to work for longer. This dramatic demographic shift has led Gratton and Scott to call for us to reconsider the conventional ‘three-phase life’ (i.e. education, work, retirement) into a ‘multi-phase life’ in which we must view work in a very different way.

The instinctive reaction to supporting an ageing economy is to raise the age of retirement, evidenced by the gradually increasing state pension age which is currently set to reach 67 by 2028. However, research has found that the increasing number of health problems that typically arise after the age of 50 mean that people simply working longer in their existing jobs becomes problematic. This dilemma triggers a need to consider how we can support people living (and inevitably working) for longer without impacting their health.

Furthermore, how can we prevent individuals from burning out or feeling jaded? To live longer successfully, Gratton and Scott call for a societal shift so that we focus more on investment and re-creation and less on consumption and recreation. This societal shift must be echoed within the workplace. Accordingly, we must think hard about which workplace policies and practices support a changing demographic and which need to realign to better suit the future of work.

Now is the time to think creatively about ideas and strategies that can help employees develop and sustain their careers. Many effective policies and practices exist that already support this notion or require minimal adjustment to increase career sustainability. The 100-year life recognises that we can no longer afford to be stagnant in our development and our career trajectories will likely become much more intricate as our skills evolve to follow the patterns of an ever-changing labour market.

The responsibility for sustainable careers does not fall solely to organisations. There are many qualities that individuals can embrace to sustain their careers through multi-phased working lives:

  • A ‘juvenescence’ mindset captures playfulness and plasticity. This will help us to be more agile and able to respond to new opportunities and situations as they emerge. It helps us to engage more fully with our diverse network of colleagues and connections from differing age groups, occupations and backgrounds.

    When we play and the institutional structures are lowered, we can express ourselves freely and our creativity grows. Google is a prime example of an organisation that adopts playfulness reflected in the least by free food, nap pods and slides in the lobby. 

  • Developing an experimental approach helps us to test out new possibilities, different ways of working and collaborating. This fosters a pioneering attitude in our work and life.

  • Cultivating a sense of efficacy (believing I am competent) and agency (believing I have the control) enables us to embrace and take charge in crafting our evolving form of work.

With this in mind, as HR practitioners and L&D professionals, it is pertinent to consider how we work with the different segments of our workforce to support this adjustment, letting go of our three-phased view to embrace this richer, fulfilling and arguably more challenging lens of a multi-phased career. We may benefit from developing different narratives to tailor employer branding.

For example, two-way mentoring programmes are a very good example of how knowledge can transcend generations. Mid-career (45-60 years old) workers may benefit from help to take on the role of the modern elder, offering insights and experience to others (drawing on emotional intelligence) while also fostering an openness to learn new skills from younger generations (digital intelligence). These sorts of initiatives do not place an age limit on career development; rather the focus is that everyone has something to contribute and we can all learn from each other.

In addition, it may be beneficial to draw on this experimental mindset and craft more flexible working arrangements that will encourage workers to experiment with careering, for example encouraging career breaks and times of transitions to foster rejuvenation and the undertaking of adventures to spark insight and creativity. 

Dr Maranda Ridgway is a senior lecturer in human resources management at Nottingham Business School, part of Nottingham Trent University, and Dr Cathy Brown is founder of Evolve Consulting Services

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