As life expectancies stretch towards 100 years, the traditional career map urgently needs a rethink. The over-50s are the fastest-growing group of workers in the UK, increasing by about 300,000 between 2018 and 2019 and rapidly approaching a third of all workers. In the United States, the proportion of over-65 workers has doubled to 20% since 1985 and accounts for 53% of the college-educated workforce. Boomers are starting to think that retiring at 65 — when you may live to 80 or 90 — leaves a little too much time for golf. And that means we need to start redefining the standard career trajectory.
Of course, age isn’t the only factor reshaping the modern career path. At the same time as our working lives extend, more and more women are also entering the workforce, and their careers seldom line up with the traditional model. In parallel, many younger men are choosing to share more parental duties with their working spouses, transforming career expectations across the board. Today, women account for just over 51% of U.S. managers and professionals, and almost 80% of millennial couples are currently in two-income families (compared to 47% of Boomer couples).
The old three-step life plan — 1. Get educated, 2. Work, 3. Retire — created 35-year careers that were like sprints. Get out of the gate as fast as you can in your 20s, accelerate in your 30s (while your wife takes care of the kids), scale in your 40s, and lead in your 50s. Don’t stop and smell the roses along the way — that can wait for retirement. But this old model is rapidly becoming obsolete.
Instead, we need to start thinking about careers like marathons. The modern career can stretch out over five or six decades, giving us time for multiple dips into education, recreation, child care, elder care, and passing knowledge and experience on to the four generations with whom we now share the workplace. To support these career marathons — and reap the well-known benefits of both gender balance and generational balance — companies need to adapt.
Based on my work with clients in a variety of industries, here are three simple things companies can do to prepare themselves and their people for the career paths of the future:
1. Track Gender and Age Balance
Supporting these shifting demographics starts with building awareness. Consider providing managers with tools that clearly illustrate how your organization breaks down in terms of age and gender, and how those breakdowns are likely to change over time. Many of my clients have found that a simple, graphical illustration of the gender and age balance in their different teams, divisions, and geographical units can be surprisingly revealing.
As you discover concentrations of certain gender or age profiles in different roles, departments, or locations, this analysis can highlight opportunities to improve diversity in those areas. Explicitly linking gender and age trends also helps illustrate how interconnected they often are, and is likely to help your team find ways to support everyone more effectively.
Specifically, many companies that have been actively pursuing greater gender balance over the past decade now have workforces with much higher percentages of women in their 20s and 30s, while the over-50 segment remains majority male. As many of these women look toward parenthood, leadership will have to work to ensure that these women don’t feel forced to step back from their careers, as that could cost these companies a significant portion of their newfound gains in gender balance. These trends also mean that companies will have a cohort of older, mostly male managers tasked with coaching and training a much more gender-balanced group of younger colleagues. These two observations can inform a whole host of management initiatives designed to set up all parties for success as they progress through their careers.
For example, I worked with one client who carefully tracked the age and gender balance of their different management development programs. They discovered that the different programs had vastly different demographic breakdowns, and so a one-size-fits all approach to improving diversity would have been counterproductive. Instead, they used their detailed analysis to determine which specific programs were falling short as far as achieving the balance that leadership wanted, and developed targeted strategies to work toward those goals.
2. Flex Career Paths
While the Covid-19 crisis has pushed many companies to offer greater flexibility around where people work, more adaptation is required to meet the needs of today’s evolving workforce. Companies must begin to consider not just how to flex working hours, but also how to flex the pace of entire careers across more years and life phases. Millennials, perennials (the 60+ cohort), and working parents across generations now represent the majority of workers, and these growing populations have a shared interest in more flexible ways of working — whether that’s interspersing traditional full-time work with sabbaticals, learning opportunities, parental leaves, or other detours from traditional employment. To reflect these realities, companies should acknowledge and encourage alternative career paths that mindfully integrate with employees’ more varied life phases.
To do this, companies must proactively normalize both lifelong learning and lifelong caregiving responsibilities — regardless of gender or age. Flexible, part-time roles have become popular among many young parents, but they skew heavily female, as many managers remain less open to supporting part-time and other non-traditional work arrangements for male employees. Interestingly, flex roles are also increasingly popular among an older, mostly-male management workforce who may want (or need) to continue working longer than they thought.
For example, I worked with a professional services organization that was dominated by men who had voted for a mandatory retirement age of 62 when they were in their early 50s — but now that they were approaching that age, they realized they didn’t want to retire quite yet. That presented challenges when it came to many of the talented women in their pipeline, who had been counting on promotions when the older cohort moved on. To address these issues, the company completely redesigned their business model to accommodate both more promotions and more part-time work in senior roles. Both of these changes were unheard of just a decade earlier.
In many cases, the first step to supporting more flexible arrangements is simply asking your people what they want. Another company instituted optional, confidential “mid-life” reviews for all employees over the age of 45 to better understand and support their plans for the future. Both employee confidence and engagement rose significantly in response; in fact, the program was so successful that the company started offering it as a service to their clients as well. Just asking your people about how they envision their career paths can give you the tools you need to better support those paths.
3. Flex Mindsets
To make a lasting impact, policy changes aren’t enough — mindsets must be changed as well. It’s all too common among employees and leaders alike to find assumptions that people retire at 65, that parents are always young women, that leaders are older men, etc. To start to overcome this, companies should proactively showcase what real gender and generational balance looks like. Consciously depicting employees of all ages and genders working, learning, and leading — in both internal and external communications — will help to build a more positive, inclusive culture.
For example, earlier this year, Unilever announced that they had achieved gender balance at all management levels. This came after a concerted effort to shift gender and age stereotypes in their advertising, particularly in their award-winning Dove campaigns. These campaigns explicitly explored and debunked sexist and ageist attitudes, depicting women of all ages taking on a variety of non-traditional roles, from older mother-entrepreneurs to young female CEOs.
Similarly, at a 2019 conference on building a more inclusive workplace, I learned that Google has (quietly) invested much time and effort into balancing its image library and search. Thanks to this initiative, if you search for “CEO” or “parent” in Google images, the results will include a variety of ages, genders, and ethnicities. In contrast, when we ran a communications audit for another client firm, we found that their marketing materials all prominently featured images of middle-aged and older men and included almost no women. To address this, the firm trained their marketing and communications teams to more accurately reflect the diversity of their customer and talent bases in their publications. After all, even if unintentional, these kinds of trends can send a strong message to both employees and customers.
As lifespans and career trajectories shift, the needs of (mostly male) older workers actually have a fair amount of overlap with those of female workers, as well as millennials. All these demographics share a desire for more flexible career paths that take into account the diverse responsibilities that these groups shoulder, both at home and at work. To keep up, companies must embrace a marathon mindset and build an environment conducive to these new career models — or risk becoming obsolete.
by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox
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