The Future of Work Is a 60-Year Career

Humans may soon live to be 100, which likely means more years on the job. That could be a good thing, if we take the opportunity to redesign work.

An illustration with a silhouette of a family superimposed on a calendar
The Atlantic

If 5-year-olds could read academic research reports, they might be alarmed by what they’d find in a recent one from the Stanford Center on Longevity.

It opened with a bit of promising news: “In the United States, demographers predict that as many as half of today’s 5-year-olds can expect to live to the age of 100.” But that was followed, several pages down, by a haunting prediction: “Over the course of 100-year lives, we can expect to work 60 years or more.”

In the U.S., the average retirement age is 62, according to Gallup polling. For most people, 40 or so years of work is more than enough, so the idea of an additional 20 is disconcerting. But if a 60-year career sounds like a nightmare, perhaps that’s because we’re imagining 60 years of work as it is for many people today: inflexible, all-consuming, poorly matched to the rhythms of life. For the sake of the 5-year-olds and the rest of us, as humans live longer and longer, we should redesign work.

The researcher who oversaw the report thinks we should start with the frenzy of midlife. “We work increasingly harder through the years where we’re having children [and] often taking care of older relatives—having lots of people dependent on us,” Laura Carstensen, the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, told me. Work and family responsibilities both commonly peak in mid-adulthood, which can be really stressful, especially for women, who bear a disproportionate caregiving burden.

To address this, Carstensen proposes allowing workers to scale their hours up or down throughout their careers, based on their responsibilities outside of paid work. She imagines two parents being able to temporarily reduce their full-time jobs to 20 hours a week when caring for their young children, and then ratcheting their hours back up later on. Under this model, people would work the same amount overall as they do now, but make up for periods of reduced hours with periods of longer hours and/or by spreading work out over more years of their (longer) lives.

A model where people could smoothly adjust their hours could introduce some inefficiencies: Businesses would still have to pay the fixed costs of employing workers, such as investing in training, but then get less out of that investment if those workers work fewer hours. Plus, if workers pause their jobs entirely, they could fall behind on the latest technology and practices in their industry during a long leave.

That said, the current model has its own inefficiencies—when people are overstretched, they probably aren’t doing their best work. Ellen Ernst Kossek, a management professor at Purdue University, told me that at companies she’s studied, reducing workloads has led workers to “be more creative [at work] because they weren’t slogging along, not being able to do the job that they wanted as a parent or elder caregiver and also not doing well in their job.”

Moreover, Kossek said, working less during life’s “peak periods” would allow people to spend more time on hobbies and friends, which could help ward off burnout. At some point in their 20s or 30s, many workers enter a season of life when jobs and families siphon time away from friendships, but temporarily reducing workloads could mitigate that shift and let people live fuller, more varied lives.

Retirement is another chapter of our working lives that we could rewrite. In its current incarnation, it is regarded as a time free of obligations, which leaves the shape of life a bit lopsided: “We’re overutilized in midlife and underutilized after 65,” Carstensen said. This imbalance will become only more pronounced as people don’t just live longer but stay healthier for longer as well.

In this sense, the design flaw is that retirement is too rigid of a binary—you’re either working a lot or not at all. Phyllis Moen, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota, told me in an email that the older workers she’s interviewed “often want to work less and more flexibly, but find they have two options—continue to work full-time (or more) or else retire completely.”

Carstensen and her Stanford colleagues have more suggestions to improve retirement. Their report proposes a “glide path” to retirement that would allow workers to ​​scale back their hours before leaving the workforce entirely. It also mentions “returnships”—brief, internship-like periods when people could temporarily come out of retirement to assist with a project or mentor younger workers.

This flexibility—throughout people’s working lives as well as at the end of them—is part of a more fluid blueprint for life that Carstensen favors. Instead of a prescribed march through education, work, and retirement, the report imagines people zipping in and out of those phases, and stitching in time dedicated to leisure and to caregiving as well. The idea is to work until later in life, but with stretches of working less (or not at all).

This vision sounds nice—it could even, miraculously, make a 60-year career feel manageable. But there are significant barriers to redesigning work in this way. “When we started having dual-earner households, that translated into people buying more stuff” rather than working less, Louis Hyman, a historian at Cornell University and the author of Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary, told me. “So if we had more time [in life] to work, would we maintain a steady level of consumption or would we just buy more things? Unless culture changes, we’d probably just [work more in order to] buy more things.” Hyman thinks that when people live longer, it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to opt out from working more, whether because of culture, their employment options, or both.

That said, the duration of Americans’ working lives has changed before. In fact, retirement as we know it didn’t use to exist. Until the late 19th century, people typically worked until they were no longer physically able to, and then hoped that their family could take care of them. Dora Costa, an economist at UCLA, told me that a 20-year-old worker in 1880 was likely to work, on average, up until fewer than two years before they died.

What’s changed between then and now, as Costa explained in her book The Evolution of Retirement, is that retirement became financially feasible: People’s incomes rose as productivity increased and, in the 1930s, the government started distributing Social Security payments to support people in old age. In other words, people stopped working because they could afford to.

Maybe financial security is also what could bring about a more flexible, less demanding vision of work in the future. Yes, escalating standards of consumption might prod people to work ever more as they live longer, but many other people might take breaks from work if they could afford to. (This possibility could emerge from higher pay, affordable-housing policies, decoupling health insurance from employment, or any number of other measures that have been proposed for increasing people’s financial security and job flexibility.)

It might be difficult to imagine that widespread financial stability and a more humane style of work could become a new norm. But the world we’re living in now would have been just as hard to imagine for our predecessors who worked practically until they died.