Linda Nazareth, educational gapIf everyone’s lifespan is getting longer (and hopefully healthier), maybe we should think about how traditional work lives could change, writes Linda Nazareth.

By Linda Nazareth, August 9, 2018

It’s all pretty predictable. You finish school, find a job, go to your friends’ weddings, then your own. You all have kids, you are crazy busy with work and you start to count down to retirement.

Retirement probably comes around your mid-60s, although maybe a bit later if you are either particularly committed to your job or particularly cash strapped. It may be a bit earlier if you were a really good saver, or started a tech firm, or were smart enough to pick parents who set up a trust fund for you.

But what would happen if we were to turn the whole thing on its head? After all, the old model was based on a set of parameters that are rapidly changing. As recently as 1960, a Canadian man reaching the age of 65 could figure on living another 13 years, while a woman could expect to live for 16 more. Now, that has been bumped up to 19 years for a man and 22 for a woman, and, as we know, many are beating those estimates.

So if everyone’s lifespan is getting longer (and hopefully healthier), maybe we should think about how traditional work lives could change. Some figure this should simply mean everyone working a couple of more decades, which would give them more income in the years when they are indeed retired. That may be appealing to some but certainly not all, especially those younger people who will resent the “grey ceiling” that is blocking their entry to the labour market.

Another model suggests that we think of work more creatively, not as something that we do intensively for several decades but rather as something that we dip in and out of over the course of our lives. Work by Dr. Laura Cartensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, revolves around the idea that we need a new approach to employment that allows people to “step out” from time to time and then work longer into their senior years. That would allow people to take time off in their younger years to spend more time with their families, and then perhaps start full-time work at the age of 40. Yes, 40.

Off the top, of course, there are problems with this idea, not least of which is how to support a family without working full time. And of course, many women who have dipped in and out of the labour market in their younger years could tell you there is a huge financial price to pay.

But the income issues are minor compared with the mindset adjustments that would be necessary to allow such a model to prevail in the corporate world. At the moment, many people feel that their jobs are at risk by the time that they hit their 50s and that their career prospects are on the decline thereafter. How then to construct a world where a worker of that age is barely getting started?

The idea of a world where work begins at 40 may remain a non-starter, but the reality is that people are working longer (whether by choice or not) and new models of work may make it possible to avoid the traditional corporate trajectory. A freelance worker could decide to work intensively over some parts of their life and then ease up over others, and perhaps keep working beyond 65 if they please. That might get people thinking about other work arrangements as well.

The 100-year life and the career that begins almost half way through it may sound crazy, but other things are changing in ways that might have sounded absurd even a few decades ago. People today are glued to their smartphones. Taxis are being challenged by ride-hailing services, and ride-hailing drivers may soon be challenged by driver-less cars. There are legitimate concerns that there may not be enough work to go around; some are so worried that they are urging governments to think about basic incomes for all. And, at least in Canada, we allow a break from the work force by providing leaves for new parents, and permit people to stay in it longer by eliminating mandatory retirement.

We are part way to a new model of work and apparently part way to a new model of the human lifespan. Inevitably, that is going to necessitate rethinking the conventional approach to education-work-retirement as well. We can be put off by the suggestion of such radical change, or we can accept that it is happening and figure out how to make the best transition into the new world.

Linda Nazareth is the principal of Relentless Economics and senior fellow for economics and population change at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.