Would you want to live and work longer?

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Today average human life expectancy is longer than ever before. According to WHO data, for the first time in history today, most people worldwide can expect to live into their sixties and beyond. Moreover, as there has been a steady grow in longevity over the past 150 years, it seems reasonable to assume that the next generations’ potential for a longer life will be even greater than ours. Indeed, there is ongoing research into ageing and the outlook of lives beyond 120 years are pronounced ever more often.

An even more ambitious question ‘Would you want to live to 150?’ was raised in the World Economic Forum’s recent session at the Annual Meeting of the New Champions. As the panellists contemplated the idea of such longevity, several interesting points were brought up. For example, thinking about living longer, we might think either about prolonged oldness, or additions to the vibrant middle ages of our lives. According to the latter view, living longer means also working longer. What are the implications for the world of work then?

If our work lives would be prolonged from 30-40 years to 60-70 years, would the traditional career path of acquiring a profession and sticking to it be viable and make sense? If we were about to live longer, maybe we could start our working careers later? If we would spend significantly more years in professional careers, would we be working continuously, all of it in one part? Session panellists envisaged the future with multiple career lives and lifelong learning with education years in-between working years.

Similar questions about the implications of longevityat the individual and corporate levels were investigated some time ago by London Business School researchers. Echoing the envisioned changes to work life structures discussed by the World Economic Forum, Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott argue that the so called three stages view of life – first education, then employment, then retirement – will be outdated soon. Instead, it might be replaced by a multistage life structure, which allows each individual to create a unique sequence and amount of stages. A multistage life may involve different and shifting stages of careers, transitions back and forth between education and self-employment, voluntary, and/or corporate work, and no ‘hard stop’ retirement. As such, in the 150 years’ life vision, being in the mid-40s might signify the end of one career stage and the transition into a new educational part of one’s life, with the next planned stage in self-employment.

It is certainly inspiring to entertain ideas of such flexible, personalized and diverse lifespans, yet such future would also imply a new set of assets, as the researchers highlight. Whereas the common three-stage life structure valued acquiring a profession, earning well and saving for retirement, then the multistage life calls for more ‘intangible’ assets as well. Professors Gratton and Scott grouped these into three categories. The productive assets entail a person’s skills, knowledge and professional networks, which naturally imply ongoing maintenance and development. Herein the idea of lifelong learning is critical as well. Vitality assets are about one’s physical and mental health, and other factors that support the durability over a longer lifespan. Finally, transformational assets are the ones, which involve self-knowledge and personal skills that enable successful change and transitions.

Contemplating on this vision of the future with even longer lifespans, multiple life stages, and ‘intangible’ assets, I keep getting the sense that at least part of this future is already here. Automation, the gig economy, multinational and vibrant labour markets are already setting the stage for lifelong learning, emphasize generalizable skills over professions, and require both personal and corporate flexibility and agility to adapt to the ever changing environment. The ‘intangible’ assets are of value to the working population already today, even if our working lives might not yet add up to 100 years.

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