Author: Charlotte Gifford
Winning an Olympic medal is a life-defining high that few will experience. With it, however, comes a considerable risk of experiencing poor mental health. US swimmer Michael Phelps, the world’s most decorated Olympian, has spoken openly about his battle with depression. “When we’re done, it’s kind of like we’re just moved along or brushed aside because there’s somebody else that’s coming up,” the 28-time Olympic medallist told Reuters in 2018.
Research has found that, as we get older, we become increasingly likely to experience some form of professional decline or suffer from feelings of irrelevance. In 1999, an influential paper in The International Journal of Ageing and Human Development found that talent and achievement did not protect against feelings of inadequacy in old age. In fact, achieving a lot at a younger age might make you more likely to feel unhappy later in life. Once the heady heights of competition-winning are far behind them, former Olympians like Phelps can feel a profound sense of loss because their self-worth is anchored to something they can no longer participate in or be rewarded for.
As we get older, we become increasingly likely to experience some form of professional decline or suffer from feelings of irrelevance
The experience of former sporting stars is a more extreme version of something we all feel at some point, usually later in life. Many happiness studies indicate that our 40s and 50s are usually the most emotionally testing and least satisfying decades. This experience is so ubiquitous that it has become a recognised social trope: the midlife crisis. People in the midst of it often dwell on missed opportunities and unreached potential. They ruminate that they’ve wasted the best years of their lives and that all that lies ahead is a miserable decline into old age.
The midlife crisis seems to be an inevitable part of getting older – a rite of passage. In reality, it may simply be a sign that the way we think about age is dysfunctional. If our early achievements don’t emotionally sustain us all the way through life, then surely our concept of success shouldn’t be so weighted on those younger years. People are beginning to realise that our narrative around growing older needs serious reconsideration.
Rise of the centenarian
This realisation could not come at a more important moment. We are on the verge of a major demographic shift: the 65-and-over age group is now the fastest-growing in the world. This isn’t a generational blip, but the start of an ongoing trend. Of the babies born in wealthy countries since 2000, it is predicted that over 50 percent of them will live to be more than 100 years old.
With such long lives ahead of us, this raises important questions about how we will continue to work and gain fulfilment for such a long time. Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott confronted the challenge of longevity in their bestselling book The 100-Year Life, concluding that our lives need to be restructured if we’re to make the most of them. “We’re moving from a three-stage life – full-time education, full-time work, full-time retirement – to a multistage life where people can distribute that time more equally across their life,” Gratton told European CEO.
Gratton and Scott envisage a world where education, skills acquisition and travel are no longer confined to socially conventional periods of our lives, but are doors that remain open to us regardless of whether we’re young or old. This isn’t just a formula for personal happiness: now that our careers are 10 to 20 years longer, reskilling may be vital for maintaining a successful career.
“We live in a world which is still very much front-loaded in terms of education,” said Jonathan Collie, CEO and co-founder of social change initiative the Age of No Retirement. “You go to school, college, university and then after you’re 22 or 23, that’s it, you don’t have access to formal education anymore. And yet, in the modern world, you don’t have a job for life. So now the responsibility is all on you to keep your resilience, your confidence, your network, your skills all up to speed so that you can continue to adapt to the changing work environment.”
With more of the population in retirement, the workforce will be smaller, which could prove detrimental to economic output
Of course, to enjoy this wealth of opportunities throughout our lives, staying in good health is important. This is the fundamental message of The 100-Year Life. Gratton practises what she preaches: at the time of her interview with European CEO, she was on a brisk walk to London’s Covent Garden. “I’m doing 14,000 steps today,” she said. “That’s one and a half hours of time.”
Gratton and Scott posit that using our leisure time productively is vital to staying healthy and agile in a work environment. “If you’re going to live a long life, you need to use your leisure time to stay healthy,” Gratton said. “And similarly, you’re going to use it to learn right the way through your life.”
There are broad economic reasons for people to adapt their skill set, continue working and retire later. In June 2019, finance ministers and central bank chiefs met for the annual G20 summit, which, for the first time in its history, included a focus on demographics. With more of the population in retirement, the workforce will be smaller, which could prove detrimental to the economic output of nations. The European Commission has stated that pension reforms are crucial if the current system is to be made more sustainable.
In some ways, we have Karl Marx to thank for retirement. In 1883, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was under pressure to stem the rising popularity of Marxism in the country. He announced that anyone over the age of 65 would be forced to retire and would receive a pension. Over the next 50 years, this idea – which had first been practised during the Roman Empire – gained traction around the world and soon became seen as a fundamental right of full-time employees. But in recent years, this entitlement has reached crisis point.
“When retirement became the norm, the average life expectancy was less than the retirement age,” Collie said. “So only a minority of people got to retirement. Then they may only last three to four years before they died – conveniently, from a financial perspective. And nowadays, living 20 to 40 years in retirement, they can’t sit on their hands doing nothing and they can’t fund it.”
Pension reform is an incredibly heated issue. Croatia recently backed down on plans to increase the retirement age from 65 to 67 after protests from leading trade unions in the country. At the same time, people are increasingly finding themselves without enough savings to fund a lengthy, multidecade retirement, and many are coming to terms with the fact they need to work for longer.
According to a survey by the Insured Retirement Institute, one third of Baby Boomers don’t expect to retire until age 70 or beyond. While this is partly driven by financial necessity, it’s also the case that many people want to stay in work. But that doesn’t mean they feel confident about the later stage of their career; often, companies fail to make them feel wanted in return.
Age discrimination in the workplace has never been given the same platform as race, gender or religion. “Because age affects everybody, there’s no real minority group in that sense,” Collie said. “So there are no real champions of age.” In fact, in most offices, it’s the de facto way of operating. Age discrimination is so entrenched in working culture that few of us would bat an eyelid to learn that Deloitte’s 2019 Global Human Capital Trends report found that more than two thirds of companies consider older age a competitive disadvantage. One wonders if the remaining third are being totally honest.
Collie argues that salary expectations disincentivise companies from retaining older employees: “We were knocking on all the corporate HQs and saying, ‘Why are you squandering this resource where people are most experienced, most on-brand, the greatest ambassadors of your brand?’ And the answer we received was pretty much that they’re too expensive. As people progress year on year, they get a little bit of a salary bump. And by the time they’ve been there for 30 or 40 years, they’re very expensive, and each one of those can be traded in for three or four new recruits.”
This way of operating will inevitably become less sustainable as people live longer and the younger demographic shrinks. As Collie told European CEO: “It’s not going to be solved by a chief exec saying, ‘We need to do something around age. Let’s do a big PR campaign programme to make us look good, identifying the older people and championing the work that they do.’ In my mind, that’s detrimental. People don’t want to be sensationalised for their age.”
The general stereotype is that older people make for fundamentally worse employees than young people. They’re less innovative, less switched-on and less hungry for success. These prejudices can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby older employees believe they are less effective and therefore are. In actual fact, studies show that the older brain is more resilient to cognitive decline than many believe. Others have shown that implementing training plans and career development opportunities for older people has a positive impact on their performance.
The need for career progression is as strong for a 60-year-old as it is for a 25-year-old
To make retaining experienced workers more affordable for companies, Collie believes working patterns need to change. “We started to explore things like job role deconstruction and flexible working – but taking flexible working to the next level,” Collie said. “How it is that you can figure out what a person’s real asset value is to an organisation and retain that at a day a week, to make the finances work better.”
Gratton added: “We spend thousands and thousands getting rid of people when they’re 60. If we invested all that money instead in upskilling them and retraining them and encouraging them to stay, that would make total sense. We’re just about to launch a big research project on this very topic. And what you find is companies saying, ‘Oh, it’s important, but it’s not on the top of our agenda.’ I think it should be on the top of their agenda.”
We are constantly finding ways to distinguish different age groups from each other: Baby Boomer, Millennial and Generation Z are all terms used to understand the behaviour of a certain demographic. The press frequently pits these groups against each other, plus some marketers use entirely different strategies to sell to each generation. While we can identify trends that profoundly shape the lives of these groups, arguing that their behaviour is fundamentally different does more to divide the generations than empower them.
In fact, research indicates that people of different ages have more in common than we think. The Age of No Retirement surveyed 2,000 people aged 18 to 99 across the UK, asking them to qualify their leisure time, health, life happiness, relationships, education and finances. “There’s very little statistical difference across the ages,” Collie said. “Which led us to the conclusion that all these generational stereotypes – the Boomers and Millennials, Generation X, Y, Z, snowflakes and whatever else people invent – are fundamentally wrong in the sense that they are over-exaggerating.”
A key way to break down these stereotypes is to recognise that the need for career progression is as strong for a 60-year-old as it is for a 25-year-old. Opening up a dialogue around an older person’s future within a company can ensure both parties get what they want. Significantly, this dialogue will not occur without employers opting in.
“At the moment, we find that there’s an absolute fear among people over the age of 45 of talking about the future and their retirement because if their managers find out about it, then it’s almost as if they are raising their hands for early redundancy,” Collie said. Instead of dreading a longer working life, it is more beneficial to view a longer career as a chance for self-improvement. Our culture’s glorification of youth encourages short-term thinking, where we pursue professional success over personal development.
Alexander Fleming received the Nobel Prize at 64 years old. Vera Wang was 40 when she opened her bridalwear business, and, at 70, she now owns one of the world’s most successful fashion labels. Giuseppe Verdi wrote Falstaff, arguably his most acclaimed opera, at the age of 85. These achievements should be taken as evidence that there’s no age limit on success.