How Many Volumes Will Your Career Have?

It has been some years now since Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott started encouraging people to think about the implications of a 100-year life.

In the intervening period, thousands of people around the world have become comfortable with the idea that the traditional, three-stage life in which we progress from education to full-time work and then full-time retirement is now a thing of the past. But what replaces it?

The reality is that as we start to live – and work – longer, the narrative structure of our lives changes. To begin with, many of us no longer expect to have a single career, but several, and changes in technology and the nature of work mean that education is no longer done solely in our early 20s – we may return to studying later on. Instead of three clearly defined transitions that mirror those experiences by our peers, each of us will make multiple transitions of our own that may be more, less, earlier or later than those of the people around us. Our lives are no longer a single volume: they are a library.

What this means is that we now have to not only reimagine our future selves – but imagine more future selves. Consider the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” which is often posed to small children. Typically, a child is expected to provide a single answer, to imagine a single lifelong career. But today’s children will need to plan for more than one career. For one, because the nature of work is changing – with so many jobs disappearing that the jobs young people aspire to now may not even exist in the years to come. Aspirations need to be flexible – and this flexibility needs longevity too. According to MIT’s Jim Poterba, we need to work an extra seven years for every ten years’ worth of life expectancy we gain – which means that we need to be prepared to pivot our aspirations well into what was previously considered retirement age.

And what about retirement? Government trends around the world suggest that this final volume is likely to be slimmer than it was for late 20th Century generations, but that doesn’t mean we’ll miss out on leisure and time off. Instead, these periods will be spread throughout our lives, with people taking time out for education between careers to spend with growing children or to pursue personal interests.

For those of us who have been educated to think of life in three stages, this reframing of our lives can seem overwhelming – but it is freeing too, allowing us to explore possibilities and aspirations we may once have had to leave behind.

For more information on planning your multi-volume life, find out more about Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott’s book, The New Long Life.