Generation 100: How an ageing population will affect the workplace
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Generation 100: How an ageing population will affect the workplace

Kenny MacIver — April 2018

Lynda Gratton, management professor at London Business School, looks at how the emergence of ‘the 100-year life’ in the developed world is impacting the nature of work and the technologies that underpin much of it.

At most IT conference sessions on the future of the workplace, the influence of millennials and digital natives is the dominant theme. But, just as the arrival of new generations inevitably influences ways of working, an older generation is also expecting to and, in many cases, choosing to be economically involved for much longer – a factor of extended average lifespans and delayed state pensions (at least in the privileged developed world).

Living to and beyond 100 may seem daunting to most people, especially if it involves as much as 60 years of full-time work, but in the opinion of Lynda Gratton, management professor at London Business School, aging populations are triggering a surprising change for the better in outdated patterns of employment.

As she highlighted at a recent Fujitsu Executive Forum in Tokyo: “The first implication of what happens when people live to 100 or more is a move from a three-stage to a multi-stage life.” Rather than a pattern of full-time education, followed by an uninterrupted working life (sometimes with a few years redirected towards parenthood) and then workless retirement, Gratton postulates that a healthier, more sustainable and appealing pattern for individuals and society would involve people taking sustained breaks or sabbaticals from work at certain periods or opting to work part-time to re-skill or respond to care commitments.

Of course, the loosening of work patterns – many of which have their roots in the industrial revolution – inevitably raises business concerns about a reduction in economic output. But, as Gratton says: “The paradox across developed countries is that, though we are working longer and harder, productivity hasn’t actually been increasing.” She points to a solution: a new workplace driven by a balance of people and smart machines: “AI, when implemented as a human-centric tech-nology, could indeed be a solution for higher productivity.”

Of course, early public perceptions on the impact of AI on the workplace are hardly positive. Rather than seeing AI as an opportunity to cut their weekly working hours and the span of their working lives, most people, whether taxi drivers, equities traders or lawyers, are already fearful their role in the future workforce will be eliminated or dramatically de-skilled by AI – even as retirement dates for most dependent on a state pension are pushed towards 70.

Gratton advises that technology needs to play a big role here: “Leaders must show what the future can be and lead skills development. When hundreds of thousands of transport drivers are facing the loss of their jobs due to driverless vehicles, how do they re-skill? That’s where the culture of a human-centered corporation comes in. The more that a country or a company can articulate the future, the less anxious people will feel about it.”

Senior management needs to take responsibility for guiding the changing, AI-impacted work environment, she urges, and lead by example. “I don’t underestimate how hard it is for a successful company to change. People always change because they imagine another way of being or because they see their leaders changing. Therefore, the way that leaders behave and how they work is crucial to helping unlock others’ imaginations.”

Read more here

  • The author of The 100-Year Life and a string of business bestsellers, Lynda Gratton consults widely on the fast-evolving relationship between people and work, providing strategic input to the likes of Unilever’s CEO, Paul Polman, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s Council for Designing a 100-Year Life Society.
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