The three phases of life are increasingly a thing of the past. Where once working lives slotted neatly into the model of education, employment and then retirement, the simplicity of that segmentation is being challenged by changing norms of the workforce.
Increasing numbers of workers, nearing their long-imagined transition into retirement, seem to be actively postponing the moment at which they down tools. Newly released figures from the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) have shown that there are over a million more over-50s in part-time work than a decade ago. And with nine out of 10 employers reporting difficulties hiring workers, there’s likely to be a growing market for their talents as bosses extend their searches to older people, including those who are willing to take on part-time responsibilities.
The ending of the three phases of working life isn’t simply down to people living longer or financial necessity — though those are certainly important factors — but also to an increasing desire to maintain a purposeful life. One survey of British retirees over 50 found that 85 per cent of them felt they’d retired too young — stopping working had left a void that they subsequently regretted.
We are seeing people in their 50s and 60s looking ahead to a retirement lasting 30 years, choosing instead to build second careers that they can maintain into their 70s or beyond.
The 2015 film The Intern articulated this human need to have value. In it, Robert De Niro (whose work over the past decade has made a reasonable counter argument in favour of an enforced retirement age for actors) plays a 70-year-old widower who finds himself a fish out of water when he joins a trendy internet start-up. In the end, not only does he find the sense of belonging that he craves but his colleagues come to rely on his experience and different perspective. It’s a plot we can increasingly expect to play out in real-life offices over the decades to come as people live ever longer.
Already, we are seeing people in their 50s and 60s looking ahead to a retirement lasting 30 years, choosing instead to build second careers that they can maintain into their 70s or beyond. Freed from the financial burden of young children, they can prioritise flexibility, shorter working hours or more rewarding jobs in areas such as charity work or teaching. Many do it for no money at all, volunteering behind the till in charity shops or showing people round National Trust properties.
However, it’s the next generation where the effect of living longer will really be felt, and the financial imperative will start to bite. In the West, more than half of the children born in 2016 have a life expectancy of more than 100 years. In their book, The 100-Year Life, London Business School professors Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott suggest that acquiring sufficient funds to see oneself through a 40- or 50-year retirement will likely be beyond all but the highest earners.
Then there’s the oft-repeated claim that young people today are the first generation to be poorer than their parents. Certainly property prices are changing the way they plan for the future. In the mid-Nineties, the average home cost less than three times the average wage; last year, ONS stats placed that ratio at eight times wages. (Notably, for London, ONS stats show that property costs are 13 times wages.)
The overall effect of these trends is that young people recognise that they will likely have to postpone dreams of retirement and instead strap on more debt spread over longer spans. It’s why 44 per cent of under 30s say they expect to be working well into their 70s and why data this year from the Bank of England show that 16 per cent of UK mortgages now have terms of 35 years or more — a figure that has tripled in the past decade.
All of these factors look set to contribute to a workforce that has a significantly wider range of ages in the future. In an era of work when we’ve all learnt to be more inclusive, only eight per cent of firms with a diversity programme have adapted it to go beyond gender, race and sexuality and into age. Incorporating older employees into the workforce is set to be the next big thing at the office.
If Robert De Niro has anything to teach us, it’s that this can be an enormous force for good for both employees and businesses.
— The Telegraph Group Limited. London 2019
Bruce Daisley is author of The Joy of Work.