Lynda Gratton: "Reinventing Our Lives"
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Lynda Gratton: "Reinventing Our Lives"

We can expect to live approximately 30 years longer than our grandparents did. What will we do with that time? And how will we pay for it? Lynda Gratton, one of the world's best-known professors of management, has a few suggestions.

Simon Brunner: Ms. Gratton, 50 percent of children born this year in the industrialized countries will live to the age of 100. How will this change our lives?

Lynda Gratton: The most obvious answer is that people will have much more time. There are 611,000 hours in 70 years, and 873,000 in a century – what should we do with this 40-percent increase in our life span? This raises questions of how to plan our lives, but also about the meaning of life and the skills needed for life and work. We're talking not just about finances; indeed, it's about nothing less than reinventing our lives. I wrote a book on this topic, which – for good reason – has been very successful in Japan, the country with the world's oldest population. When you live a long time, you inevitably see and do things differently.

Has the traditional sequence of our lives – education, career, retirement – become obsolete?

Yes, the "three-stage life" is increasingly being replaced by a "multi-stage life." And it is important to note that unless you happen to have saved an enormous amount of money or can live on very little, in the future you will have to work for a very long time, until well past age 80.

In Switzerland, the current debate revolves around a retirement age of 65 – far different from 80!

Certainly no one is going to work full-time, without interruption, from 20 right through to 80! Perhaps you will return to school for additional training in the middle of your career, or you'll take some time off and then return to work. It would be terrible to work for 60 years without a break! I think we should integrate "retirement" into our lives – why should gap years be reserved for the young? Taking a break should be an option at other stages of life, as well.

Society needs to overcome its prejudices about the capabilities of certain age groups.

What role do companies play in this context?

The business world needs to recognize that people need – and in many cases want – to work longer. I'm 62 years old – and my peers are as fit as 50-year-olds were 10 years ago. Still, not everyone my age is still working, far from it. Society needs to overcome its prejudices about the capabilities of certain age groups. We live in a time of collective rejuvenation. Companies must respond to these changes. Many people will join companies and then leave to pursue further training. Or they may want to adjust their job profile from time to time in response to new requirements. Workloads may change as well; we should make it easier for people to vary the number of hours they work – so that they can spend more time with their children, for example. If companies are to recruit the best employees over the long term, their HR strategies will have to take into account how society is changing.

But the labor market in many countries has not exactly been waiting with open arms for these older workers. In the UK, your home country, a million people between the ages of 50 and 64 are involuntarily unemployed. What can be done about this situation?

We need to be "age-agnostic" – in other words, we should stop focusing on numbers and clinging to stereotypes about older people. That's why I don't like all the talk about the generations: Baby boomers are like this, Generation X is like that, millennials are completely different – how can people generalize like that? Any given generation is far from homogeneous. A 55-year-old football fan is likely to have more in common with a 20-year-old football fan than with a 60-year-old who likes going to the opera. We should eliminate age as a factor, and governments should put policies in place to help us do so. That would help.

As you age, you need to save. A lot.

You want society to become more tolerant of aging, but the trend is going in the other direction. We seem to be more obsessed with youth than ever before.

Change requires role models. It is still uncommon for women to reveal their age. When I give a talk, I always make a point of mentioning how old I am. I want to show people what 62 is like today. I'm not sitting in a wheelchair; I'm very active – for example, I came directly from a plane to do this interview. More and more people like me will be making public appearances, and I hope that will help to reduce prejudice.

In your book, you write that when people are living to the age of 100, a very high savings rate is essential. Otherwise we will see widespread poverty among the elderly. But in the UK, the savings rate is below 2 percent, and private debt is at an alarming level… 

…and the situation is similar in the United States. You're right, the problem is that many people are spending more than they earn. That path leads to disaster. It's actually very simple: As you age, you need to save. A lot. You have to make it a habit. And you must limit your consumption. If you're living a multi-stage life, you should always set some money aside during the stages when you're earning. There's no other option. Here, too, we need a profound cultural change.

What will a society of centenarians do to the myth that the young have always been the ones to introduce new things, innovate and rid us of the old and outdated?

Multi-generational communities present a real opportunity. Google conducted a study showing that teams made up of members who were all of the same age were less productive than mixed-age teams. Young people are not necessarily more innovative than their elders. It is the combination of young and older that makes the difference.

What will your life look like in 10, 20 or 30 years?

The first question to ask is this: Can I still be productive? Are there still things for me to explore? Am I still learning? The second relates to physical vitality. Am I investing enough time in my health? I first truly realized how important health is while I was writing the book; that's something I've paid too little attention to in the past. Third is the question of renewal: Am I still able to change and adapt? I have to be able to say yes to all of these questions.

Young people are not necessarily more innovative than their elders. It is the combination of young and older that makes the difference.

And then you'll live a happy life?

That's not quite enough; friendships and relationships are the foundation. A long, happy and dynamic life is built on a combination of family, friends and work. If all of these factors are in place, then I would love to live to 100.

What advice would you give your children and grandchildren?

I would tell my seven grandchildren, ranging from 2 to 10 years old, to work hard and make a lot of friends. Be productive, take care of your health and recognize that change is an opportunity. One of my sons, Chris, is obsessed with health. He runs marathons and follows a very healthy diet. Dom wants to be a surgeon – his focus tends to be on productivity. It's good that they are both specializing in something, but eventually they'll have to take all three aspects of life into account. Chris needs to work more, and Dom will have to take better care of his health. Each of the three areas of life is affected by relationships and friendships – that's the foundation. Friends are more important than work.