We build models to make sense of the world. People once thought the world was flat; when facts contradicted the model, it was replaced, and the round-earth model led to exponential growth in commerce. As George Box notes, “all models are approximations (and) are wrong, but some are useful; the practical question is how wrong they have to be to not be useful.” It’s time to update our lifespan model so employers maximize the real value of employees.
Today’s Three-Stage Lifespan Model
In 1900, when most people engaged in physical labor in fields and factories to earn a living, average life expectancy was in the 40s; lifespans for today’s knowledge workers are rising to 80 years. Moreover, researchers project that our children have life expectancies of 100+ years.
The Social Security Act in 1935 institutionalized retirement from income-producing work around the (then) approximate age of life expectancy: 65. If you live longer, Social Security payments help you enjoy a few remaining “golden” years. Thus, a basic two-stage life model of childhood (learning) and adulthood (working a primary career/job for income and having a family) added a third stage: retirement (leisure) until life ends.
Over the past half-century, thanks to the gifts of longevity, healthier lifestyles and medicine, more people are living into their 80s, 90s and beyond. What do we do with the extra years? Most people and businesses have simply added them to the post-work third stage.
From my experience as the CEO of a company specializing in adults living fulfilling and long lives, I’ve come to understand that people aren’t really looking forward to 25 years of post-work lives. Increasingly, they want to use some of the years still being productive by engaging in activities for income, passion and/or purpose. When given a choice, workers in most economic sectors of the economy (e.g., professionals) prefer to continue in their firms or begin the second or higher-order careers/jobs. Indeed, The Kaufman Foundation reports that the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs is adults over the age of 55.