Coming Soon: The 60-Year Career  

With more people living to 100, employers and employees must become more flexible.

By Eleanor O'Sullivan

A career that lasts longer than the average lifespan of the American male of just three generations ago?

It’s possible to imagine that many more workers will be working until about 80 as longevity continues to increase. By 2025, there will be 120,000 Americans who are at least 100, not to mention an estimated 15 million people 80-plus. In 2045, the number of centenarians is expected to more than double to 270,000, while those 80-plus will number over 30 million, according to the U.S. Census.

In contrast, babies born in 1922 had a life expectancy at birth of 60 years old.

Panelists at the Longevity Project’s Century Summit 2022 session “American Business and the 60- Year Career” spoke about the importance of flexibility by and for younger and older workers as a necessity for individuals, as well as for the economy.

Essential workers

In a few years, more than 25% of the American labor force will be 55 and older, said panelist Jean Accius, senior vice president of Global Thought Leadership at AARP. Studies conducted in 2020 indicate that workers age 50-plus already contribute 45% of economic activity, he said, and he expects this to increase.

“The global implications of that are huge. Older workers are essential; as they age, they are as productive as their younger counterparts; they bring value to the workplace with intelligence, reliability, low turnover,’’ Accius said.

But what about assertions that older workers are not technologically savvy in an increasingly more complex technological labor market?

“The surveys found that 94% of older workers had little to no difficulty managing any kind of technology on the job,’’Accius said.

“So, ageism toward older workers no longer makes sense, and business must recognize that,’’ said Accius.

Ageism is a multi-billion problem

The reality, though, is that 62% of older workers face age discrimination in the workplace, according to surveys conducted by AARP of 750 worldwide companies. And billions of dollars are lost yearly due to ageism on the job: lost production from loss of able and reliable workers and the costs of replacing and retaining new hires, said Accius.

“This has huge repercussions for companies and workers — it stifles the economy — and lack of growth affects us all. For older workers, it’s also the repercussions on their financial security,’’ he said.

Caregivers suffer, too

At the same time, an aging society also raises another dilemma: Who will care for the elderly?

Millennials now account for 25% of the nation’s unpaid caregivers, either of their parents or their grandparents.

More younger people caring for more aging relatives translates into a shrinking labor force among younger workers, said the panelists.

But in the new order, they said, there can be a compromise to losing the employee: a career break to handle personal needs.

Employees who leave to go on a career break should be encouraged during exit interviews to stay in touch with the company so they can be brought back, after the break,’’ said Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch.

Jamie Woolf, director of culture and learning at Pixar Animation Studios, agreed.

“We’re thinking about a new paradigm that will allow flexibility, which is so meaningful … Employers can offer the employee a career break to live their lives and then after say, nine months, return.’’

Age diversity is powerful

In addition, retaining age diversity at work is a positive approach to running a company, said Woolf.

At Pixar, “We realized we have five generations! There’s collaboration across the different generations. We also created a program for mentoring, from older to younger and that broke down a lot of barriers. A lot of assumptions that each had made were not true! It has been a complementary experience for them to be working together,’’ Woolf said.

Also part of the panel was Judith Williams, a human resources executive, who has led diversity efforts at Google and Dropbox.

Disney CEO Bob Iger “retired so he could be with his grandkids and could sleep at night. But Disney wanted him to return and he said, ‘Okay, talk to my wife.’ He’s back and not once have I heard anyone talk about his age; he is 71.

“He is absolutely revered at Disney. The stories you hear about him are about his class, his wisdom, the kind of stories you hear in an Asian country when they talk about older people. I know they feel, ‘Thank goodness he’s back. He’s the best,‘” Williams said.

Pandemic lessons

In the darkest early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, older workers on career breaks or retirement were welcomed back with open arms.

“We saw that with the pandemic professionals who were available to come back were asked to come back, to come out of retirement. And they came back to medicine and institutions — nurses were allowed to practice across state lines because the rules were relaxed because of the pandemic,’’ said Fishman Cohen.

“There was also a need to bring back people who knew the underlying code of software — COBOL — which is the ancient code, and so companies pulled back those older coders who knew that language to make necessary repairs to unemployment offices so they could run smoothly!

“So, let’s grab this moment because it’s a great example of how older workers contribute when they come back,’’ said Fishman Cohen.

Next steps

This led to a discussion of formalizing career re-entry programs for workers in their 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. Fishman Cohen said these workers should be offered the opportunity to return if “they want to go that route. They’re proving that they can take career breaks and resume and be productive,’’ she said.

The panelists agreed that a more flexible approach to careers is the new wave of future work. Accius of AARP said a longer career means helping workers keep up to date on innovations and changes in their jobs.

“Besides work flexibility, we need to be making sure they are investing in themselves to meet future needs. In our surveys, we found that 60% of workers are taking skills training to improve their options.’’

Human resources executive Williams said new employees are drawn to companies like Pixar, with its ground-breaking computer graphics departments, because of the chance to work with industry pioneers.

“The chance to meet these pioneers is the reason they go into the field; they have so much respect and admiration for the older people,’’ she said.

“And yet, the bad news is that those people over 60, when asked if they experienced ageism, the story I heard over and over was ‘I have a lot to mentor, but there are so many young people in this field, maybe it’s time to move aside and let the young people take my place.’

“The entertainment industry is so youth-oriented,, that even among these older workers who are so respected, ageism does infiltrate their thinking. There’s this dual thing: They are revered but at the same time they worry about their ability to keep working at their age.’’

The panelists discussed companies such as Google that require literacy skills in new technologies, and are making access to that literacy possible.

Fishman Cohen said more companies are adopting career breaks into their policies, and in March 2022, LinkedIn, a leader in online career profiles and resumes, created a career break niche for profile building, she said.

“So now you can take your career break and put it into your profile, explaining why and what you were doing. LinkedIn doing this was a validation of the idea of the career break. It will become the norm in the 100-year life,’’ Fishman Cohen said.

She said that Goldman Sachs and Sara Lee are early leaders in the move toward allowing career breaks, with more Fortune 500 companies adopting the policy, she said.

The 2022 Century Summit, held December 13-14, is a collaboration between the Longevity Project and the Stanford Center on Longevity. Susan Golden of the Stanford Center on Longevity moderated the “American Business and the 60-Year Career” session.

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