What with longer life spans, people are not only working longer, they’re also changing the way they live. We’re in a longevity revolution of a kind that’s never been seen before. A hundred years ago, the average life expectancy was 47; today it’s 80. That’s huge! We’ve seen a 30-year increase in 100 years.
We’re moving from a linear to a cyclic life plan. We used to define 50 as over the hill. That’s no longer the case. People now have the opportunity to reinvent themselves throughout adulthood.
In the past, self-image was largely determined by age. The reality today is quite different.
So what does the future hold? The older working population will have to be continuously re-educated and retrained, underwritten by corporations. So far, they have barely even begun.
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If organizations don’t wake up to these generational realities, intergenerational strife and possibly even age wars may become the norm.
So organizations better start getting up to speed. The Times They Are A-Changin’, as Dylan sang in his epic 1963 folk-rock tune.
It’s hard for organizations to get their hands around the concept that a 70-year-old job candidate could be a smarter hire than someone 20 years his junior.
Women’s rights made quite a stir at the turn of the century. What say we apply that same thinking to a powerful untapped work force, our underestimated, misunderstood seniors?
It’s a brave new world, and the image of old cranky curmudgeons – the balding, paunchy old-timers who just sit around and complain most of the day, whiling away their days waiting for 5 p.m., the magic hour when they head out en masse to take advantage of their early-bird bargain-priced dinners – is no longer applicable.
People are not only living longer – and yes, it’s a brave new world for the old folks – but the average person also can no longer afford to retire at 65 or earlier.
Most organizations can’t afford to pay retirement benefits. And the average person can hardly meet basic living expenses.
Forget all the rah-rah flag-raising, marching-band nonsense about the old folks getting much-deserved respect because they’re still reporting to work at 9 and clocking out at 5. The reality is they must work. It’s not passion, obsession or workaholism that drives them: It’s economics 101. Ideally, earnings must exceed expenses in order to have money left over to enjoy simple pleasures (dining out, travel).
But the good news is that new economic realities have some interesting spillover effects. Rather than folding up at age 62 or 65, the 60-70-plus generation has discovered something very precious. All the myths about being washed up at age 60 and a glorification of the retirement years are hogwash.
The new economic realities have taught older workers – the term “seniors” now seems demeaning – that they’re not only capable and competent, but that many also never hit their peak productive or creative years. They’ve got a lot of steam and energy left in them. They also have priceless experience, which gives them the ammunition to make extraordinary contributions. And organizations are just starting to get their hands around these realities.
Rather than shelling out ridiculous sums to high-priced executive-search firms to find young fast-trackers with Ivy League and Fortune 500 credentials, maybe companies should be scouting the 65-plus superstars who are still in the game.
Dana Wilson is a freelance writer.
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