It’s no secret that people are living longer. But breaking down the numbers is surprising. Life expectancy has increased at a rate of more than two decades every decade, with more people than ever living well into their 80s, 90s, and 100s.
This means some changes in the workplace need to happen to help people who are living longer, says Lynda Gratton, professor at London Business School, and coauthor with economist Andrew Scott of The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity. Gratton says that people living longer lives in health means that they’ll work longer, too. However, how and where they’ll work are likely to change, and employers are going to need to be ready to accept new realities and adopt new practices to accommodate workers of all ages.
Facing the financial realities of lower retirement benefits, improving health status, and rising longevity in the U.S., a 2015 report from human resources consultancy Aon Hewitt predicts that people will work longer. No longer will the traditional "three-stage" life cycle apply, where people are full-time students, then full-time employees until they retire full time. Longevity in the workplace means that companies are going to need to support employees, and those employees are going to need to embrace lifelong education and training.
"Each person, depending on their circumstances and their motivation and aspirations, will develop a life path which has a lot more stages in it," Gratton says. She and Scott see at least three more phases emerging:
Exploration stage: where people of any age devote some time to learning more about themselves and the world.
Portfolio stage: where people try different types of work for money, community, and to serve other needs
Entrepreneurial stage: where they try self-employment or business ownership.
With so much transition, Gratton says employers are going to have to be more understanding about employment gaps.
The Aon Hewitt report also predicts that once Baby Boomers start to retire in significant numbers—the peak of the retirement boom will happen in 2019 with those born in 1957—there will be a talent drain, and employers will need to work hard to keep talented workers who are on the brink of retirement. That’s going to require new types of benefits and support for older workers, says Ed Frauenheim, director of global research and content at The Great Place to Work Institute, an executive coaching and culture consulting firm.
Flexible work with be more important, both in terms of offering people day-to-day options as well as allowing employees to take leave for care-taking, illness, education, or other needs. In addition, employers can keep employees engaged longer by phasing in retirement with part-time or consulting work, Frauenheim says. Maintaining alumni networks can provide a talent pool of returning workers who bring new skills they’ve learned back to the company.
Workers will also be increasingly responsible for maintaining such networks and keeping themselves marketable, Gratton adds. Companies should look at how they’re providing training and education opportunities and how they’re encouraging their employees to make use of them.
Wellness and fitness will be also be important to aging workers who are concerned about remaining healthy as long as possible. Frauenheim points to companies that have adopted low-impact exercise classes, 24-hour nursing access lines, and reminder services for taking medicine and engaging in wellness activities.
Financial wellness will be another important area on which employers will need to focus. Beyond employer-sponsored retirement funds, companies need to help their employees gauge their financial wellness at every juncture, says Steve Nyce, senior economist at Willis Towers Watson, a global risk management, insurance, and advisory company. A June 2016 survey released by the company found that one in four employees anticipate working beyond age 70 and one-third of respondents anticipated working longer than planned.
Cultivating employees who are well-prepared for long lives starts with making good financial choices in younger years, so introducing financial education classes and resources on topics like retirement savings, buying a house, saving for college, and others can help younger workers plan for their later years, he says.
Employers can also take action themselves. Frauenheim says that 40% of the companies on the "Great Place to Work" list have defined benefit pensions versus 18% of companies overall. Profit sharing and retirement plan matching contributions will also be important to employees who wish to maximize their retirement benefit, he says. Nyce says that companies should also work with employees earlier to help them create "draw-down" strategies regarding how they will withdraw their retirement savings and combine their benefits and assets to create a lifetime income plan.
"If you look at the research around financial literacy, there are across-the-board concerns out there that there are many individuals who are being asked to [plan retirement] on their own and they really need a lot of help," Nyce says. Holding seminars or one-on-one sessions with objective financial planners or financial educators can help employees devise the best possible strategies for them.
Gratton says that keeping older workers engaged will include discarding stereotypes, especially about their capabilities, technology aptitude, or other false assumptions. Older workers in the coming decades will live longer periods in good health than ever before, she says. When people of different ages and from different backgrounds interact through diverse networks, the more likely they are to inspire each other and create a better workplace, she says. An evolution in the benefits that will serve workers facing long lives may improve conditions for everyone.