We have been accustomed to thinking of life in three stages – education followed by work followed by retirement and then some sunlit years until we die around three score years and 10. Many of our cultural norms both at work and on the home front have been designed around this three stage model. So, for example educational institutes largely cater for young people. Career plans have been imagined as being full-on while you’re in your 20s and 30s and then making your mark in your 40s followed by a gradual slowing down in your 50s and easing into your retirement in your mid 60s. Pension schemes have been conceived with a retirement age of around 65 and have been costed with the assumption that you will have only another 10—15 years of life remaining.
This graph from the 100 Year Life, an excellent book by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, rather puts paid to our 3-stage model. 50% of babies born in 2007 will live to 103 in the UK. So much for retiring at 65!
As we live longer, we desperately need to re-think the systems and processes we have designed to match these longer lives. I’m interested in what happens to careers in particular.
I think it’s fair to say that the new norm will be constant career transitions. A job for life is already a thing of the past with only the baby boomers still in the work force having stayed at one company for their lives. The ownership of careers has moved away from being the responsibility of the company to be the responsibility of the individual. Generation Y workers (those between 20 and 38) understand this well and see every job with a view to how much they can learn from it to enhance not just their careers but, more broadly, their lives. Indeed, Generation Y are not so turned on by the notion of a career, preferring instead to construct a life that they want to live and to work on cultivating their own identity. Work is part of that but it’s not the be all and end all. In this respect they differ quite markedly from their baby boomer work colleagues who have a different experience of careers.
You could say that careers, in the 80s, started to fill the void that organised religion created when people in developed economies moved away from being church goers. People began to find their
identities and their fulfilment in their careers. You could say that in capitalist society, large organisations have moved into the space that churches previously occupied. They not only provided
your car and your health insurance but also your community and a sense of belonging. This was when there was such a thing as a job for life. You depended on the company and were loyal to it and
it looked after you in turn.
Recessions and the pressure of global competition have done away with the security that people previously experienced in employment. Companies can’t assure jobs anymore and this has changed
the psychological contract significantly. If the company can’t look after your career, then you need to. Where IQ used to determine success, EQ started to take over as people realised they needed to
navigate the politics to survive. Nowadays with constant change you need to be able to re-invent yourself. The new requirement is LQ (learnability quotient).). The ability to learn.
Being a good learner is critical as technology dramatically changes what’s required of us to earn a living. Learning a trade for life is risky if that trade can be wiped out by the advance of technology.
Even the professions are not safe. Computers are nibbling away at the jobs typically done by junior lawyers and accountants. Apps that measure all your vital statistics eat into what doctor’s practices have typically provided. Educational institutions are slowly waking up to this shift. With regards to age profile, pretty soon I think they will surely lose the expression “mature student”. Innovation in digital learning will disrupt the traditional classroom experience. MOOCs like Coursera are registering thousands of new learners for courses in a staggering array of subjects. The average age of a Coursera participant is 41. The de-coupling of youth and education is already happening. The neuroscientific discoveries around the brain’s plasticity makes it clear that we can learn right up until we die. The brain doesn’t atrophy unless you let it. People are taking their personal development into their own hands. Companies are already providing employees with learning credits to be redeemed by them rather than providing their own in-house course suites.
The challenge for organisations is meeting the needs of people who want individual contracts, flexible working and highly specific personal development plans when in the past the focus has been
on standardising things to keep costs down. Perhaps the advent of data analytics will enable companies to move beyond standardisation to being able to cope with different work patterns
without the associated costs. It’s easier to work flexibly when collaborative technology keeps team workers connected and individual performance is constantly measured and monitored. With more data we can move from measuring input to output. This will help when it comes to the end of our careers where our contribution is more easily measured and it’s this that determines our worth to the organisation. The cliff end retirement we still have, needs to change as people live longer. It’s not in a company’s interest to lose the institutional learning that people who have been around for a while hold. Equally, it’s not ok to have people earning huge salaries who no longer contribute. Clearer measures of output are needed.
Another seismic shift I think we’re beginning to see is the rejection of “extreme jobs”. These are ones that demand 100% of an individual’s attention for the whole week. Technology has made slaves of us as we are now contactable pretty much constantly. Again, younger generations are pushing back against the enforced career model that insists you become beholden to the company’s needs irrespective of your own life stage. One of the main reasons we see so few women at the top of organisations is that they are not prepared to give up a family life in favour of a career. Increasingly young men feel the same. I think we will see that promotion to Director or Partner will not be sufficient incentive for either men or women to forego a rich family life. Talented individuals will seek out organisations who measure output over input and recognise that being fulfilled at home results in more productivity at work. Companies might do well to re-think career patterns that continue to measure promotability in terms of availability. This is particularly relevant to companies who promote a global career path. The days of the “trailing spouse” are coming to an end as 40% of primary breadwinners in the US are female and as dual career couples become the new norm.
AS you can see it’s not just individuals who need to cultivate LQ. Institutions also need to adapt to the changing nature of careers brought about by the 100-year life and re-learn how to shape their processes accordingly.