It's Time to rethink our View on Age and Work

As we navigate a world where living to 100 is increasingly common, we will have to rethink how we view age and work, moving from a traditional three-stage life to a dynamic four-quarter journey of growth, achievement, becoming, and harvesting.

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In 1984, I was 15 years old and living in the US with my parents. That year, I closely followed the US presidential elections, and I became an outspoken fan of Ronald Reagan. During the decisive debate with Walter Mondale, Reagan was asked whether, at 73, he might be too old to become president. His response was legendary: "I do not wish to turn age into an issue in this campaign. I don’t want to exploit my opponent's youth and inexperience for political purposes." Mondale, then 56, was left speechless. Reagan won by a landslide: 525 to 13 electoral votes.

This year, both candidates are significantly older: Donald Trump is 77, and Joe Biden is 81. And once again, age is a big issue. To be fair, Biden did significantly underperform at a recent CNN debate, where he was at times unintelligible, running words together and stumbling when he tried to cite statistics and legislation. So much so that many Democrats feel that he should step down. Trump, on the other hand, seemed significantly more astute at the blessed age of 77, but that’s also easier if all you do is tell lies instead of remembering facts.

The whole seniority discussion is a popular one today. For instance, 79% of Americans favor maximum age limits for elected officials in Washington, D.C. And 74% support such limits for Supreme Court justices, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. Recently, the ‘age thing’ came up in the fight surrounding Disney's strategy, where CEO Bob Iger (73) stood opposite activist Nelson Peltz. Peltz was repeatedly referred to as the '81-year-old billionaire', with the clear undertone: 'Why are these old geezers making it so hard for each other?'

Some embarrassing outlier situations like the one involving Biden aside, I feel it's time to thoroughly rethink our view on age and work.

We are entering a world where reaching the age of 100 is becoming more common than unusual. 50 percent of children born today will experience a birthday cake with 100 candles. Lynda Gratton, my colleague at London Business School, wrote a book about it: 'The 100-Year Life'. Over the past century, science has given us an extra 30 years of life expectancy. It would be a pity to just add those extra years to retirement. It may mean that the structure of our lives needs to be completely redesigned.

I recently had the pleasure of working with Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, from the Stanford Center of Longevity, who advocates dividing life into four quarters. The old pattern was one of three steps: learn, work, retire. Now, we are moving towards a world where there will be as many people over 50 as there are under 50 living and working. She advocates for a new roadmap: grow, achieve, become, and harvest. With a very active work life of 50 years or more.

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She asked me to summarize my first two stages in one word and express my ambition for the third part, which I have just started. I turn 55 this year. My first quarter was: impatience. I couldn't wait to finish high school, I couldn't wait to get my degree, I couldn't wait to start working. My second quarter was: greed. I wanted to start a business. And another. And then another, with an IPO. I wanted family and success and fame. All at once, and far too much.

I am now at an age where the previous generation was advised to fasten their seat belts, put their seat upright, and get ready for landing. My father retired when he was 60. However, we are now experiencing a whole generation that is eager to make their third quarter a chapter of “becoming”. I certainly do. My ambition for the third quarter was growth. The children are going their own way, our house is a lot more quiet, and I feel that I can really make a difference. And that I can still grow much more.

Pablo Casals was one of the world's best cellists. When he was 80, a film was made about him, and the director asked him why he still practiced five hours a day at that age. His answer: "Because I think I am making progress."

Longevity will be one of the biggest challenges of our modern society. It will force us as a society and as companies to thoroughly reconsider our ideas about age and work. Many readers of this piece will be in the third quarter of their lives, or close to it. So I’m really curious about your ambitions for Q3 and Q4.

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