It is almost second nature to create stereotypes of people based on age. If someone is in their twenties then they must be technologically adept, obsessed with keeping fit, prepared to change jobs frequently whilst obviously searching for meaningful work. Those in their sixties and seventies must be less interested in work and are probably exhausted and anticipating the leisure time offered by a long retirement.
These are seductive and easy to understand behavioral labels. But are these assumptions either real or helpful? Might they obscure even more important similarities?
We believe this is a crucial question to ask right now as working lives – shaped by technological innovations and extended by growing longevity – are undergoing profound transformations. To understand how people are responding to this transformation in their working lives, we developed a survey completed by more than 10,000 people from across the world aged 24 to 80.
We found far fewer differences between the age groups than we might have imagined. In fact, many of the traits and desires commonly attributed to younger people are shared by the whole workforce. Why might this be the case?
One reason is that we are simply living longer. This means we’re also working longer, and working differently.
For our recent book The 100 Year Life we calculated how long people will work. Whilst we cannot be precise, it is clear that in order to finance retirement many people currently in their fifties will work into their seventies; whilst those in their twenties could well be working into their eighties. That means that inevitably people of very different ages are increasingly working together.
This long working life, coupled with profound technological changes, dismantles the traditional three-stage life of full-time education, full-time work, and full-time retirement. In its place is coming – for all employees regardless of their age – a multi-stage life that blends education, exploration, and learning, as well as corporate jobs, freelance gigs, and time spent out of the workforce. Inevitably the variety of these stages and their possible sequencing will result in both greater variety within age cohorts, whilst also providing opportunities for different ages to engage in similar activities. In other words, work activities will become increasingly “age agnostic” and these age stereotypes will look increasingly outdated.
Right now people of every age are becoming increasingly aware of the transformation of their working life. They are reinvesting in their skills, looking after their health and thinking about options, transitions and career switches that weren’t a reality for previous generations. Viewed in this light, there is less discontinuity between different ages – and instead a shared, and growing interest in the tools to cope with a longer working life in an age of profound technological disruption.
Our survey highlighted these commonalities. While there may be some selection bias — the 10,000 people who completed our survey online are already interested in the topic of life and work changes — their experiences and attitudes highlight how misleading simple age related stereotypes can be. Consider six fairly common age-based assumptions: the young invest most in new skills, they are most positive and excited about their work, and they work hardest to keep fit; the old are more exhausted, keen to slow down, and less likely to explore. The people in our study overturned these stereotypes.
The six assumptions we have explored here are probably just aspects of a much bigger tapestry of assumptions about the young and old that are spurious, wrong, even damaging. We use the word damaging with care. When corporations believe that older workers invest less in their knowledge, are less excited by their work and exploring their world, and are on a path to physical decline and exhaustion, they make the wrong decisions about whom to select, promote and develop, and whom to retire.
There are undoubtedly some differences across the age groups that are important in the workplace. However, the over-simplicity of age and generational labels decreases our understanding of individuality; it masks the commonality of the task we are all facing as we strive to achieve a productive and enriching longer working career; and is in deep conflict with the imperative to develop age-agnostic working practices.
As every one of us is faced with living and working longer it is absolutely crucial that, whatever our age, we face up to and question unfounded assumptions and stereotypes about ourselves and about others. Only then can we create workplaces where people are accepted for themselves.
Lynda Gratton is Professor of Management Practice at the London Business School where she teaches an elective on the Future of Work and directs an executive program on Human Resource Strategy. Lynda is a fellow of the World Economic Forum, is ranked by Business Thinkers in the top 15 in the world, and was named the best teacher at London Business School in 2015. Her most recent book is The 100 Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, co-authored with Andrew Scott.
Andrew Scott is Professor of Economics at London Business School and a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford University and the Centre for Economic Policy Research. He has served as an advisor on macroeconomics to a range of governments and central banks and was Non-Executive Director on the UK’s Financial Services Authority. He is the co-author, with Linda Scott, of The 100-Year Life: Living and working in an age of longevity.