Re-calibrating the work cycle

A relative rang me excitedly about a recent BBC television news item that advocated this revolution in our working lives: start our full-time working lives at age 40, then transition to part-time work before retiring at age 80, rather than the present headlong rush into a career while still in our early 20s.

The person behind this novel idea is Professor Laura Carstensen, founding director of Stanford University's Centre on Longevity. Her basic thesis is that we have got the work cycle all wrong. We still follow the model based on a very different life expectancy, one in which middle age was death’s antechamber. Not so long ago the norm was for men to retire at 60 and soon thereafter kick the bucket, but now even men are managing to hang on till age 82 on average. According to a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and quoted by Prof Carstensen, in the past 100 years we have extended our lives more than in the previous 200,000 years, so that a 72-year old man living in Sweden or Japan today now has the same chance of dying as a 30-year old caveman.

As for women, Prof Carstensen says a female aged 40 today can expect to live an average of another 45 years, and five per cent of us will make it to our 100th birthday.

Her question is why, when there is so much life left to live upon retirement, do we not adjust the work cycle to take stock of this reality? It is perfectly true that we stuff child rearing and the demands of building careers into a tight time frame, only for it all to end sharply upon retirement, leaving us to face decades of possibly idle time. Her suggestion is that we should plan to have long careers with breaks in the early part of our working lives to facilitate having children, continued learning and the many non-workplace demands.

There will be a lot of sympathy for this point of view from all overworked and stressed-out parents and women whose careers suffer as a result. Those with responsibility for solving the pension crisis caused by the world’s quickly growing aged population may also find the idea attractive. The fact is that by 2030 all developed countries in the world will have populations with more people aged over 60 than under 50 who could pay taxes and fund pensions. So, we need to think clever and get people to work longer, but we all know that we are at our most intellectually potent before the age of 30 with the slow and inevitable loss in cognitive powers that occurs from mid-life onwards becoming noticeable sometimes well before age 80. Although older people in the workforce bring invaluable experience and stability, unless scientific research can produce drugs to retard that development it is hard to see the Carstensen proposal gaining much traction within companies, no matter how appealing it might be.

The practicality of the suggestion is also questionable. I cannot imagine any present democratic government having the political means to bring about such a radical reform that would require a slew of new legislation, a lot of long-term economic and social adjustment plus a complete redesign of advanced education and of many institutions and procedures. My relative argues that it need not be radical and cites the way in which we are gradually moving from the job-for-life model to the portfolio of jobs that many younger people now have, which allows them to manage their personal time better. The focus on entrepreneurship and innovation also is allowing people to start up their own companies that can be located at home, which means they too can manage the personal and professional better. But, these developments do not really solve the immediate problem of too many senior people not contributing to the state coffers for the remaining 20-30 years of their lives.

In almost every country, raising the retirement age to a very reasonable 65 or 67 is hugely unpopular, even though economically that is still too low a retirement age if people are to continue to receive state pensions. The attempt to get people to save for their old age failed miserably when so many lost their savings in annuities that suffered from the last two international economic crashes. At the same time company-run index-linked pensions have become things of the past and people must rely on state pensions that are dwindling in value. It is not an easy problem to fix and typically we will not have the will to change anything profoundly until the problem is so huge that we are forced to. The facts have changed but we have not changed our minds.


"Re-calibrating the work cycle"

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