More than half of today’s five-year-olds can expect to live to 100, according to a new study—but they will spend around 60 of these years working. What are the implications for how we pace our working years?

 

How we balance work with our private lives and family responsibilities has always adjusted with the times, seen currently with the changes the pandemic has brought to how we work and where. These shifts have usually brought welcome and positive change.

Historically, there is no question of the improvements that have been made in terms of working conditions. By the 1930s, technological advancements that made some work vastly more automated coupled with movements for the rights of workers including the eight-hour workday had economist John Maynard Keynes wondering: “How we will all keep busy when we only have to work 15 hours a week?”

Now, nearly 100 years on, the challenges facing us with work do not surround there being too little of it, but by our being increasingly dissatisfied by it, often to the point of detriment to our health and wellbeing. And a recent report by the Stanford Center on Longevity delivers some double-edged news: Half of five-year-olds of today can expect to live to 100, but they will spend 60 of those years working.

Photo: Pavel Danilyuk via Pexels

 

A new form of work dissatisfaction emerges


Just as working dusk to dawn, seven days a week for as long as you possibly could – the reality for most of the working class until the late 19th century – was not sustainable, working for 60 years in the ways we currently experience and balance work with the rest of our lives is unrealistic.

According to the Stanford report, job satisfaction today is not measured only by wages, but by more holistic factors, such as the discrepancy between actual and desired hours, opportunities of personal growth, job security, mental stress, job ethics, job engagement, autonomy, flexibility, and interpersonal relationships. Work-life balance is more than the catch phrase of the moment: it is going to increase in importance and be the driving force behind the changes in how we work if we are too work significantly more years.

If work is going to be prolonged an additional 20 years per lifetime, we will have to rethink how we work and the ways in which we balance our jobs with the rest of our lives, including our health, hobbies, and relationships.


Rethinking the work/retirement structure


This evolution has already been occurring. Over the last 100 years, life expectancy increased from 50 to 80 years, according to the Stanford study. The inception of pension plans and the concept of retirement at the age of 65 or older being a desirable state changed how we think about the most lucrative years of our working life.

“Devoting adulthood to remunerative work,” the study states, “resonates with profiting from the mature fruit of education, which insures productivity levels are able to guarantee a steady living standard over the life time.”


Balancing the producing versus consuming years


The study points to the years we spend producing versus consuming. As traditionally structured and up until recent years, according to the study, young workers saw about one-third of wage growth and made two-thirds of their job changes during the first ten years of work experience. This began to change in the 1990s, the study explains, when workers aged 16 to 24 had lower participation in the labour market and in job-to-job transitions rates. One school of thought claims this is because of improved career matching between individuals and the job paths they choose, requiring less “shopping around” for the right professional.

Another theory puts this rising trend on an equally rising trend of young people moving back in with their parents after completing college or other training. The idea that the 30s are the new 20s is losing lustre with Millennials who, because of moving in with their parents, have experienced sub-optimal job matches and delays in reaching life milestones such as marriage, home ownership, and parenthood. Putting off becoming parents puts many workers in a burdensome situation,

Photo: Monica Silvestre via Pexels

 

And then there’s the traditional way we view retirement. As it currently stands, we attempt to over-contribute in midlife, balancing work and family and trying to make time for anything that will feed our happiness, like hobbies, friends, and continued learning, and then we are under underutilized after 65, when we are expected to contribute far less. This, according to Laura Carstensen, the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, is an imbalance that will only become more obvious as we start to live longer.

 

Radical shifts needed in how we balance pressure


Carstensen, in an interview with The Atlantic, points to midlife as a particularly burdened time in our lives, years during which we take on the peak level responsibilities professionally and with our families. Carstensen told The Atlantic that we “work increasingly harder through the years where we’re having children [and] often taking care of older relatives — having lots of people dependent on us.” Statistically, this is especially true – and stressful – for women.

A main suggestion of the study is that we cannot think about how we structure our lives the same way as now, and simply add more years to each phase. A more dramatic shift to an even more radical new-normal is needed.

One way to combat this mid-life-heavy stress effect, according to Carstensen, is to scale working hours across careers to accommodate for lower or heavier stress periods outside of work. For example, she suggests a working structure that allows two parents to cut back to part-time hours in their jobs, ramping them up over time back to full-time. This would mean adjusting the hours reasonably throughout the career, but then working more years in total. The overall working contribution of each worker would be the same, while time would be permitted to focus on other priorities that arise throughout adulthood.


Meeting the challenges of longevity


With the right adjustments, our predicted longevity is a positive development. That is the overall conclusion of the Stanford study. Currently, we are not ready, the study warns, and that is something we need to heed. Increased longevity means we need to optimize each phase of life, not focus all of our responsibilities and achievements on a set of midlife years. It means we need to make way to increase opportunities for lifelong learning, for building longevity-ready communities and neighborhoods, and to adjust the hours we work to the busier times in our lives, so we are able to sustain our vigor and commitment to work for longer.

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