One of the most successful programmes at Stanford has the title Designing Your Life and affords the comforting notion that such things can in fact be done. The sense of agency and ambition that this notion brings is important for those at the threshold of their careers, particularly in the world of exponential choice and commensurate pressure that Stanford students no doubt experience. The act of standing back to re-evaluate the shape of life and work is also necessary at other moments of transition: for individuals, for their organisations and for the health of society. At Thompson Harrison, we have been thinking over several years, not only about the need to design your work life but also about the difficulty of managing the transition between life stages both for employers and for employees.
In January I attended a talk by Teresa Martin-Retortillo from IE XL at the Merit Conference in Vienna that she called ‘The 50-Year Career’. Here she compellingly envisaged our working lives divided into five stages and considered the learning needs of a longer, productive career.
The presentation brought to my mind Jacques’ speech in Shakespeare’s As You Like It (1599) printed below. Unlike Martin-Retortillo, he envisages a life that has seven distinct phases, or the ‘Seven Ages of Man’ as the speech has become known.
‘And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages’.
For me, two of Shakespeare’s seven ‘ages’ are particularly interesting. In the early twenty first century, they are the stages undergoing huge structural transformation. His third age, that of energy and action, where a young man ‘bearded like the pard’ seeks ‘the bubble reputation’ roughly equates – if I do my maths right - to the disrupted and uncontained decade experienced by those in their twenties. His sixth age of wisdom, ‘With spectacles on nose and pouch on side’, addresses those in their sixties. There have been radical transformations to the way these two decades are lived, compared to the experience of time in 1603 when Shakespeare wrote ‘As You Like It’. The elongation of life, energy, health, access to education and mobility for the fortunate many is still largely unmet and uncapitalised upon by a structured response from companies, governments and society.
Many in their twenties run to stand still. Uncommitted to by corporates in the gig economy, under invested-in and largely under paid, they can fall between the cracks. The ebullient ‘strange oaths’ of Shakespeare’s young bloods are not so easy to utter when you have three jobs, an hour and a half commute and debt clocking up interest at 6 percent. We need the confident, innovative, challenging voice of the young in our companies but fail to give them the psychological safety to be difficult while at the same time helping them to think longer term about multi-stage careers. Which companies are thinking in a more visionary way about the development of their young recruits in terms of life design?
Those in their sixties, in some key respects, are still dealt with by government and businesses as if they are only fit to totter off in their ‘lean and slipper’d pantaloon’ while many will be granted at least another decade or two of healthy, active life. If Shakespeare had been writing today, he would have revised his stages. When Bismarck launched the first pension scheme in the 1880’s, it was envisaged that people would live 7 years beyond retirement. In their 2017 report, the WEF said that someone who retires in Japan today at the age of 60 can expect to live another 45 years. Yet, some companies are still pensioning off their people at 55 and watching their corporate experience and wisdom walk out of the door, to the detriment of everyone. For wisdom to be beneficial it has to be connected and fuelled with contemporary knowledge – so, how are organisations inventing new ways to support and tap this wisdom? What new shape and purpose are people giving to their lives that even Shakespeare would not have imagined, as they launch into their sixties?
We are looking to learn from both sides of the ‘life design gap’ – as we pursue our work on transitions and to explore the many productive ‘parts’ that men and women play through their lives.