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Will we ever retire?

New career paths are challenging retirement

The ageing population is increasing rapidly. According to the United Nations, by 2050 one in four people living in Europe and Northern America could be aged 65 or over. There is considerable, and growing, concern about how society will adapt to cater for this growth, and we have already seen impacts in the working world in the form of increases to the state pension age and reductions in benefits, effectively pushing people towards working for longer. So, what does this mean for the way we view retirement, and how can the next generation prepare as they approach retirement age?

For the majority of people, the world of work has changed radically over recent years and the acceleration of technological advances, as well as increasing globalisation, has had a significant impact on jobs and how we perform them. It has meant, for example, that the transition to remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic has been relatively seamless. People in a variety of professions around the world are currently working from home effectively, both alone and in teams. There is speculation from consultancies such as Deloitte that the office-based norm may be a thing of the past. There is uncertainty about the future of work, but we can be sure that the transition to retirement will be very different for Generation X than it has been for the Baby Boomers currently making the transition.

So, how are work patterns changing, and what does it all mean for retirement? To answer that question, we need to look first at Greek mythology: Proteus was the prophetic old man of the sea, gifted with the ability to foretell the future but, aware of the dangers of foresight, he would change his shape to avoid captors. This is where we get the word ‘protean’, meaning adaptable and versatile. Psychological theory suggests that workers, particularly at senior and managerial levels, have adopted a protean approach to career development, working towards self-fulfilment through progression determined by themselves rather than a path set by organisations. Managers view themselves as in charge of their own careers rather than following a path set out by convention. The ultimate goal in protean career development is psychological success – the pride and accomplishment of achieving our own goals, rather than those set out by the traditional route of climbing the corporate career ladder. This is particularly pertinent where careers have been significantly affected by changing business environments.

Carola Wolf, Senior Lecturer in Strategy at the University of Liverpool, says that “managers can no longer rely on the traditional linear models of organisational careers”. In research published last year , she talked to 29 managers drawn from across Europe. Her work helps to illustrate how protean careers develop in real life. The research shows that we construct protean identities as we move through our working life, in a series of learning cycles. Looked at in this way, we can see that career development continues in later working life and the transition to retirement – whenever that may be – can be considered as another part of this journey. By telling the story of individuals at different stages in their protean careers, and focusing on the aspects that are important to them, Wolf identifies some of the psychological challenges of this new way of working. For example, how do we form our identity around our working life and how can we protect that in the context of continuous change? Despite the challenges, the overall picture of a protean career is a positive one. As one of the interviewees put it: “I think the older I get, the more I realise that when I was young I always thought of a career as a script. So if I am not doing this, this, and this by 40, then I would have failed. And now I think about my lifespan and most probably I will be doing super-interesting work when I’m 50 and 60.”

The working landscape, then, has changed – but how we can we understand how that affects individuals and, importantly, how individuals can respond to the changing demands on them in their approach to retirement? One approach is to look at different generational cohorts as each generation’s values are the product of their early environment and, according to generational theory , result in a different perspective on life events when compared to other generations. The next to approach retirement will be Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980, with the oldest members now in their mid-50s. In 2015, a psychology study purported to be the first data-led study to examine shifting career mobility patterns across all four generations in the modern workplace. The researchers found that there is growing job and organisational mobility across generations, increasing across generational cohorts so that Millennials are more mobile than Generation X, who are in turn more mobile than the Baby Boomers before them. The evidence shows that workers can and do adapt to changing working conditions, in line with the protean career model explored by Carola Wolf.

The challenge now is that the working environment is changing at rapidly, and with the pressures on society from the ageing population, Generation X may be the first generation not to formally retire at all. This is an area where greater insight and understanding is critical to our collective success, not just for Generation X, but for future working generations to come. It is critical that we understand more about the development of careers in their later stages and the challenges that this brings to individuals’ mental resilience, adaptability to change, and ability to reinvent themselves as they enter later life. If we don’t have this knowledge, then how will organisations be able to support their employees, and how will individuals be able to find the resources to continue to manage their career paths? Society needs them to be able to do this in order to support the infrastructure that will be strained to breaking point by the demands of the ageing population.

Literature and Links

United Nations (2019), United Nation’s world population prospects, 2019 [Online], Available at https://www.un.org/development/desa/publications/world-population-prospects-2019-highlights

Deloitte (2020), Future of Work {Online]. Available at https://www2.deloitte.com/uk/en/pages/consulting/articles/future-of-work.html

Hall, D.T. (1996) ‘Protean careers of the 21st century’, The Academy of Management Executive, vol. 10, issue 4, pp. 8-16[1] Wolf, C. (2019) ‘Not lost in translation: Managerial career narratives and the construction of protean identities’, Human Relations, vol. 72, issue 3, pp. 505–533

Mannheim, K., (1952), Essays on the sociology of knowledge. London, United Kingdom: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Lyons, S., Kuron, L. (2014) ‘Generational differences in the workplace: A review of the evidence and directions for future research’, Journal of Organizational Behavior, vol. 35, pp. S139–S157

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