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other words, work activities will become increasingly “age agnostic” and these age stereotypes will look increasingly outdated.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.
- It is not just the young who are investing in new skills. We asked people whether they felt their skills and knowledge had plateaued, and whether they had recently made an investment in their skills. After the age of 30 many people are concerned about plateauing skills. Indeed there is no difference between those in their 30s, 40s or 60s – almost two-thirds worried that their skills and knowledge were not keeping up with changing work demands. What is fascinating is how many people were countering this by actively investing in their skills. Certainly a higher proportion of those aged 18-30 (91%) and 31-45 (72%) felt they were investing in new skills but after the age of 45 almost 60% of all ages said they were actively investing. In other words, the majority of people keep maintaining skills and this does not significantly decline with age.
- It is not just the young who are positive and excited by their work. This is a crucial attitude as working lives elongate. If indeed being positive and excited about work declines sharply with age, then long working lives will become a terrible burden for the older. What was striking was that whatever their age, those feeling positive about their work was a constant at just over 50%. Just as striking is the proportion of people of all ages who don’t feel positive about their work.
- Older people are working harder to keep fit. We know that vitality is central to a long productive life and it is easy to imagine that it’s only the young who really care about their fitness. Yet we discovered that it is the older who are working hardest to try to keep fit. About half of those under 45 actively try to keep fit, rising continuously across the ages with a peak of 71% for those aged over 70.
- Older people are not more exhausted. One of the reasons corporations often prefer the young to the old is the assumption that with age comes exhaustion at work and therefore a lowering of productivity. We found no evidence of this age related exhaustion. In fact, more people under the age of 45 (43%) said they were exhausted than those over 45 (35%) – the least exhausted are those over 60.
- Older people don’t want to slow down. The stereotype is that as people age they want to slow down and are looking forward to retiring. We found this not to be the case. More than half of those aged 46 to 60 want to slow down, whilst only 39% of the people over 60 and less than 20% of the people over 70 say they want to slow down.
- Exploring is not just for the young. When you think about “gap years” you probably think about 20-year-olds taking time out after full-time education. But why assume that it is only the young who want to take time out to explore and learn more about themselves and their world? Crucially, we found no significant age difference in people’s excitement about exploring their options.
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.
This article was seen on HBR.