Lynda Gratton was standing on a hillside in Tanzania listening to a Masai warrior chat on a mobile phone with his brother about their goat herd, when she was suddenly hit by the paradox that no matter how much we change thanks to technology, our core needs and desires as human beings stay the same.
“I suddenly realised I have no idea what is going to happen in the future,” Gratton told several hundred business leaders at the World Business Forum in Sydney recently. “So I began to research how to prepare for this unknown future, starting with the most basic question of all: How long are we going to live? And are we prepared to live that long?”
As Professor of Management Practice at London Business School and founder of consultants the Hot Spots Movement, Gratton is universally regarded for the insights her books and research have provided into organisational behaviour and management. Her most recent research focuses on the organisational, personal and social challenges of a population in which many of us will live beyond 100, and the changes this will mean for our professional lives.
The result is five insights into how to prepare for this shift, and the professional ramifications it will have for us all.
1 – Plan to live to 100, and work to 80
“Long lives will give us a huge opportunity to do wonderful things, but we can’t plan to retire at 65,” says Gratton. “Right now everything is crammed up together, we’re trying to have kids, and get a great career, and create a home all at once, and we won’t need to do that anymore.”
According to Gratton, professionals in all sectors of the economy need to stop thinking of their careers as a linear progression built around a single skill set. Using personas created to reflect different generations and projected longevity, she suggests generation X and Y, now in middle age, should be prepared to recreate their careers, take breaks to retrain, and work through to their 70s, even their 80s.
2 – Intangible assets are crucial
“We used to assume that the assets which enabled you to be productive were around your training, skill set and capabilities,” says Gratton. “This is no longer the case. Intangible assets such as your vitality, your friends and family are far more important in terms of predicting long-term success.”
Gratton suggests that the best way to prepare for a longer working lives is to shift our focus away from tangible assets such as property and measurable assets such as skills, and onto aspects of our personality, relationships and outlook that will enable us to be more productive for longer. She predicts that in the future, health and wellbeing, long-term friendships and a positive outlook will ultimately become more important than education levels and physical assets.
3 – Prepare for transformation
“If you’re going to have a long life, and a long career, the idea of three consecutive stages – study, work, retirement – just won’t work anymore, Gratton says. “You need the capacity to constantly transform yourself, because what you study at the beginning of your working life just won’t be relevant 40 years later. We’re going to see people taking a break in the middle of their working lives to retrain and to explore different options.”
Not only do individuals need to be prepared to change, but organisations and governments need to move away from expecting everyone to live through the same life stages at the same time, because where, when and how we study, enter the workforce, leave work and retrain will change constantly.
4 – Think hard about skills (don’t get replaced by a robot)
“In the same way that mechanisation replaced routine physical activity in the 20th century, artificial intelligence will replace routine cognitive activity in the 21st century,” says Gratton. “Manual non-routine jobs, like plumbing, continue to be performed by humans, and similarly at the high-end – routine analytical roles will be completed by machines; the jobs that are going to stay are analytical but non-routine.”
Gratton predicts the expansion of artificial intelligence will have a big impact across the professional services sector, creating diagnostic and analytical support tools for decision-making. However, she says, humans will always be needed for non-routine roles.
5 – Work-life balance is the key to long-term success
“The only way to ensure people are productive throughout long working lives is to make sure they go to work feeling authentic, resilient and supported, and leave work feeling networked, inspired and knowledgeable,” Gratton says. “It’s no longer going to be good enough for people to work long hours to achieve short bursts of leisure; the actual way we do work needs to change so that people feel they have control over their lives.”
This means the relationship between organisations and employees will shift fundamentally, Gratton says, from one of command and control, akin to an adult-child relationship, to one of communication between equals, adult to adult.