Average human lifespans of 100 years are in sight. Workplace learning will need to change. 

Research from Stanford shows that as many as half of today’s five-year-olds in the US can expect to live to the age of 100 and that this lifespan may become the norm for new-borns by 2050. That means that today’s children could have careers that span 60 years or more. Yet society and the workplace are not keeping up with this seismic demographic shift.

In its report, the Stanford Centre on Longevity calls for “momentous and creative changes” to norms, policies and social institutions, which evolved when people lived only half as long as they do now. Among the changes they envision are flexible career “on-ramps and off-ramps” instead of today’s “impossibly packed” 40-hour weeks, allowing workers to extend their careers over many decades.

“We can start by replacing the traditional one-way street from education to work to retirement with more flexible routes in and out of the workplace, including paid and unpaid intervals for caregiving, health needs, lifelong learning, and social transitions to be expected over century-long lives,” write the authors.

In this context, it seems unlikely that the career someone chooses at the age of 18 will be the one they are following when they finally retire in their late 70s or early 80s. To keep pace, workplaces and educational institutions will need to think about how best to support people as they cross-skill and reskill to pursue new careers.

An article in The Atlantic suggests that this represents a third wave in education and training: “…the third wave is likely to be marked by continual training throughout a person’s lifetime—to keep current in a career, to learn how to complement rising levels of automation, and to gain skills for new work. Workers will likely consume this lifelong learning in short spurts when they need it, rather than in lengthy blocks of time as they do now when it often takes months or years to complete certificates and degrees.”

Five careers, one lifetime

By some estimates, people should be planning for five careers in their lifetime. People starting their careers now and, in the future, will thus need to be willing to retrain several times to remain employed. Employers face some complex challenges, too: How do they manage age diversity in a way that creates opportunity for all? What’s their responsibility to their people as they shift gears in their careers?

While there is a significant gap between South Africa and the developed world in life expectancy, we can expect longevity to increase here, too. This is counterbalanced by the youthfulness of our population and the elevated levels of youth unemployment we face. Policymakers and employers will face some thorny questions over the next few years.

How do we upskill and reskill people in their late 20s or 30s who have never had formal employment? What can we do to support unemployed people of all ages via social security nets? What is the appropriate retirement age when so many youth don’t have jobs? And what is the employer’s responsibility in terms of absorbing labour and reskilling employees?

There are no easy answers to these questions, but they should be at the forefront of our planning for the future.