Guest Blog: The Prospect of Work in Later Life. No Crisp End.

by Mark Venning

What is the prospect of work in later life? How long do you intend to keep working?

Over the last decade or more, questions like these are being more widely asked of, and by people in their later life career stages. Largely because of our changing outlook on aging and longevity, most social structures are in the process of redefinition – from pension reform and health care to housing and community design. So too is our relationship to work.

From my extensive work in the career management field, in conversations with people typically of age 55 and over, the decision to work longer comes from a combination of need and desire – to stay engaged, and/or to supplement later life income streams. This is now for many, about paving the way for an extended lifetime beyond traditional expectations of a retirement. One of the more pragmatic questions in this new frame of reference thus becomes “how are you going to finance your longevity?”

Notably for me the narrative began to change at the turn of the millennium, ironically when Y2K and the dot com world started to churn up everything on the go. Add to that a couple of economic downturns that followed, and the attitudes around the parameters of the career and life course model shifted.

Improvising in a compassionate economy

As a result, there is no crisp end to work in later life. Not that everybody believes that working beyond a self-prescribed age is a great thing. However, this depends on how you choose to describe what work, a workplace or a workforce is. Caregiving for example is work and often not valued monetarily. Theodore Roszak in his 2001 book, Longevity Revolution, submits that we are on a move to a compassionate economy:

“…we will soon find ourselves improvising a post industrial economy in which increasing numbers of old and young will work voluntarily as the spirit moves them, at occupations…nothing like employment as we have known it….In the twenty-first century, geriatric care may take the place of high tech as the unfolding frontier of opportunity.”

In 2007, I co-created a survey for workers 40 to 60 plus. One question was “what does working longer look like for you?” The most frequent responses were short-term contracting or consulting, and working a part time job. Interestingly those choices were highest with those over 60.

Beyond working in the corporate world, people are entertaining other options, from starting a home based business to creating a portfolio life of paid work and other unpaid activities including caregiving. Portfolio life, a term first coined by Charles Handy in his 1989 book The Age of Unreason, is not an age specific experience but it does fit for those who want to continue to work, fulfilling a desire for diversity and creativity, parallel to other goals later in life.

A case for social interaction

Picasso once said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.” Your intention to work longer, perhaps differently than before, such as the portfolio life approach, may reflect a general trend, but you cannot consider any of this without articulating your motivations to find you working. What would drive you to stay inspired? An answer is likely explored best in a story.

Some years ago, I had a client who suddenly faced a decision to retire or not. He was 89 when we first met and he had been working since his early teens. His fascinating seven-decade journey of working, took him to his last job as a message deliveryman for nine years in Toronto’s financial district. When I asked him what he would miss most if he were to stop working, his reply was – social interaction.

Of course, social interaction contributes highly to a successful longevity and is attainable in ways other than through work, as was indeed the case for this man approaching 90. Yet, as long as there is an economic need to supplement a later life income stream, complimented by the inspiration to stay mentally challenged, then working longer is part of the trail mix for feeding your longevity. For as long as you are able, however you design the formula – it is up to you.

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Mark Venning works with not-for-profit and business leaders, providing presentations, research and advisory services on the Business & Social Aspects of Aging Demographics – and 1:1 with business professionals “leaving the corporate crow’s nest” to explore Entrepreneurship in Later Life. www.changerangers.com

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