In her article Growing Old and Living Long: Take Your Pick, Laura Carstensen discusses how, as a result of healthier lifestyles, better healthcare practices and a slowing birthrate, the elderly working population in developed nations is slowly but surely growing. Carstensen, the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, remarks: “Humans are exquisitely sensitive to social norms. They tell us when to get an education, when to marry, when to retire, when to have children.” It is this culture that guides us through life; but culture does not always keep pace with technological change and the resulting increase in human longevity. The result? Years are gradually added to people’s working lives.

Thinking of this phenomenon as “living longer” (as opposed to “getting older”) allows us to see this as an opportunity for intellectual advancement instead of a drain on society. Doing so opens doors to new opportunities in human capital. Indeed, this mindset can be adopted not only by senior management, but also the “millennial” demographic that is currently the source of extensive commentary in the media.

According to Carstensen, interviewed by BlackRock’s Chip Castille: “For the first time in human history, we’ve got more time. So we could make young adulthood longer. We could enter the workforce more gradually and exit more gradually. We could reach the peak of our careers in our sixties and seventies instead of our forties and fifties.” The potential of experienced employees is now much higher than it has ever been, for society is increasingly recognizing that companies should provide opportunities for continuous learning through a person’s entire career.

Selecting a career in your twenties, starting a family in one’s thirties, and working and saving through one’s forties to sixties in order to retire soon after appeals much less to the incoming generation of workers, who appreciate job security yet are an especially individualistic cohort. It furthermore limits more experienced workers’ potential, particularly for individuals in their late careers, with diverse interests and talents. Carstensen speaks to this, as “older workers tend to have more emotional balance; they care about meaning and mentoring younger people. There’s actually a lot of evidence that productivity goes up with age.” Simply discarding that value because of one’s age is wasteful and costly for companies looking to empower their people and gain a competitive edge.

To accommodate for this, and allow team members to fully reach their potential both personally and professionally, companies must consider offering flexible options for their employees across various stages of life. Whether this is helping an established and experienced employee pursue a new role with different responsibilities or explore further education, these new pathways can instill confidence in individuals.

There are several important opportunities with increased lifespan and time spent in the workplace. They are:

  • Senior executives, or those with many years of experience, can spend more time mentoring colleagues.
  • It creates a larger pool of talent from which companies can draw, as new recruits will be coming from beyond the currently available “high-potential” and “youthful” markets. Here, it is important for companies to move beyond the question of how best to engage millennials, and include employees who are eligible or closing in on retirement age.
  • Team members will have a broader variety of skills, as the opportunity for continued education and diverse work experience increases.
  • It allows for a more diverse and multigenerational team, providing perspectives, problem-solving abilities and experience from across age groups.

In order for individuals living longer to be capitalized on, however, we encourage companies to undertake the following:

  • Create a flexible workplace structure, from accommodating hours to the possibility of working from remote locations.
  • Implement an ongoing dialogue with team members concerning their ambitions and goals long after they are “new hires” in a company
  • Create programmes to assist with those team members who are interested in continuing education, or pursuing a different career path, ranging from financial assistance or modified hours to flexible career-path options.
  • Encourage the possibility of these changes within a company, and foster an open and supportive environment for those who are interested in pursuing their goals without fear of repercussion upon their professional well-being.

Individuals spending longer in the workplace can serve as a competitive advantage, but companies must approach this issue strategically. For millennials, this question is of direct importance to them as they will make several career pivots throughout their lives – especially as medical advances allow them to live longer than their predecessors. Thankfully, a growing contingent of senior business leaders, such as former Walt Disney Company CEO Michael Eisner, support such a mindset shift.

In order to capitalize on this, businesses must start from a place of support and discussion. Indeed, the opportunities presented by a conceptual shift from “growing older” to “living longer” are tremendous. Carstensen, Eisner, the Stanford Centre on Longevity and others have initiated this conversation. Now it is time for society as a whole – millennials included – to join in.

Have you read?
Which is the best country to grow old in?
What is the economic impact of ageing populations?
How can your business prepare for an ageing population?

Author: Josh Vanderleest is a Project Lead with Gen Y Inc

Image: Executive assistant Mario Rebellato, 68, works on a spreadsheet at his desk at Pimlico Plumbers in London July 29, 2010. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett