· 2 min read · Features

Lynda Gratton: The HR implications of longevity


The three-stage life of full-time education, full-time work, and full-time retirement will rapidly be replaced

When Andrew Scott and I began to write a book about the current and future implications of longevity and the 100-year life, we saw them as fundamentally affecting individual workers.

We realised, for example, that living 100 years probably means working into your late 70s or even 80s. It became clear that intangible assets – the capacity to build valuable skills; to remain healthy and vital; and to transform yourself – would be as important as tangible assets such as savings and housing. We also realised that the three-stage life of full-time education, full-time work, and full-time retirement would very rapidly be replaced by something much more flexible.

While our initial focus was on individuals we were also fascinated with what this would mean for corporations and the HR function.

It became clear that the current norm of retiring in early- or mid-60s will very rapidly look highly inflexible. So it is crucial that those in the HR function think creatively about using the skills of those over the age of 70. Fixed retirement ages are often used as a proxy for managing poor performance – it is seen as easier to ask people to leave in their mid-60s than deal with shifting the poor performers within the cohort out.

It is also crucial that we drop the generational stereotypes. One of the delights of multi-stage lives is that inevitably different ages begin to mingle as they engage in similar activities. This will lead to a culture that is ‘age-agnostic’ rather than age-determined.

The whole selection process will need to be redesigned. For most corporations the primary source of talent is graduates in their early 20s. This works well for the three-stage life, but breaks down rapidly when life becomes multi-staged. How can a business reach out to a disparate ecosystem of talent, and what would the process of attraction and retention look like? When lives are long there are so many more opportunities for career transitions.

It’s also time to reconsider the whole issue of time out. A five-day working week, going from nine to five, with four weeks of holiday is a direct legacy of the industrial revolution. Now we have very different technology platforms and aspirations of work. Couldn’t sabbaticals, longer weekends and more time off to study play a bigger role? This becomes all the more important as we live longer and have increasing issues around family care.

And consider the balance between tangible and intangible assets. For most corporations it is tangible assets – reviews of pay and performance and the allocation of bonuses, that take much of the focus. Although tangible assets help people prepare for retirement they don’t help prepare for longer working lives. It is intangible assets that do that.

So why not shift the conversation towards intangible assets? At any point in time what is the corporation doing to build and maintain intangible assets? We think this is so important that on our website www.100yearlife.com there is a diagnostic tool that allows people to gauge to what extent they are building, maintaining or depleting their intangible assets.

And finally, isn’t it time that the rhetoric of lifelong learning became a reality? In the three-stage life education is front-ended. But as we looked at changing technologies one stop education looks remarkably inflexible and inadequate.

People will want to reschedule their learning, to relearn and to reinvigorate at many points in their long productive lives. What role can employers play in this, what is the responsibility of the individual, and what will be the new ways of learning?

There are challenging and exciting times ahead for the HR function. Those most interested in finding and retaining highly talented people will want to build initiatives around some of these areas. Those who struggle with implementing creative ways of employing people may well find their engagement levels ebbing away and the demographic of longevity becoming a curse rather than a gift.

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School. Her new book, The 100-Year Life, is out now