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The Seventy-Year Career

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I decided one day that I might live to be 100. While Parade magazine is not my typical source of inspiration, an article about centenarians caught my imagination. My takeaway from the piece was that living past 100 isn’t just for “super-agers”, but that any of us can aim for that milestone with some mindful lifestyle choices. I realized then that, barring something like terminal cancer or a fatal accident, it is realistic to plan for a lifespan double what I’ve had so far.

Nearly two decades into my career as a talent and human resources professional, it was natural that my thoughts would segue to the workplace implications of a longer life. For a whole bunch of reasons, it’s not reasonable to expect everyone to retire at age 65, or even at the Social Security Administration-adjusted age of 67. Gone is the 20th century ideal of working at the same company for 40 years and then vacationing for another decade or two. Frankly, that dream was never a possibility for a large segment of society.

Instead, I encourage you to begin planning for meaningful employment well into your 70s and 80s, which may also help you live a longer and healthier life. Of course, few of us will be in the same job for 70 years like Queen Elizabeth II. What can we regular people do to reorient for a longer career at whatever life and career stage we find ourselves in today?

Pace Yourself

First, remind yourself repeatedly that a career (and life!) is a marathon, not a sprint. In certain phases, for years or even decades, you may be content and productive engaged in the same work. Other career phases or decision-points may bring much angst and handwringing.

I’ve had many conversations with early-career professionals noting the unfairness of countless entry-level job postings that require two years of experience. “How can I get any experience if no one hires me?” they lament. That anguish is real, especially with rent and student loans to pay. Compounding the short-term pressures is anxiety about the long term: “What happens if I don’t get on a career track?”

If this is your current career phase, my suggestion is to reframe this stage as just the beginning of your multi-decade career. Using a mindset of long-term investment, embrace the time and intentionality it takes to choose a good starting line. That first job will happen. It might not be the “perfect job,” but that’s okay. Take advantage of the learning opportunities in that first (perhaps crappy) job, then move along. Later in your career, those jobs eventually fall off the bottom of your resume, but the lessons learned set the foundations for your future professional path.

For mid-career professionals, a typical concern is the dilemma of taking time off for parenting or other caregiving, or to attend to personal health needs. In this career stage, it can feel unwise to take years, months, or even a few weeks away from work.

The reframing here is to prioritize your own human thriving and that of your loved ones. Assuming a career that takes you into your 70s or later, you will be set up for greater career success if the non-work aspects of your life are also successful. And, who knows? Those periods of caregiving may lead you to discover new ways to contribute your talents to the world.

Learn and Grow

An unverified but oft-shared factoid posits that people will have an average of five careers over the course of their lifespan. Whether or not this is true, the idea persists because it aligns with what we observe in our friends and colleagues. It also resonates from a human development perspective. We learn and grow, and our strengths and interests evolve.

Our society has an unreasonable expectation of 18-to-22-year-olds, in the established norm of pushing young adults to choose a professional path without a broad view of what the workforce has to offer. To counterbalance this persistent practice, we – individuals, organizations, and the overall workforce system – need to be proactive in creating opportunities that invite the exploration of new interests and skills.

Shifts in career direction happen, even for individuals who feel a strong calling from childhood. Consider Jane Goodall, who spent the beginning of her career alone in the jungle observing chimpanzees. As the decades passed and her life experience and perspectives broadened, she founded first a research institute, then a youth-focused conservation and environmental education nonprofit. For over twenty years now, she has focused on traveling the world to give talks about the importance of caring for the global ecosystem – requiring a greatly expanded skillset from her early days as a field researcher.

Just as everyone has an individual personal growth path, everyone has a unique career path. Some career changes, like Jane Goodall’s transition into activism, start from a current path and branch off. Others are a complete career reset and can involve going back to school to enter a new field, or starting that cupcake business after 30 years in accounting. Sometimes volunteer pursuits turn into paid work.

It’s worth explicitly saying that a career doesn’t have to be a linear upward trajectory, and neither does compensation. Sometimes we take a pay cut to take a role that provides more professional growth and personal satisfaction. Sometimes a lateral move allows us the opportunity to expand functional expertise. In other cases, we encounter a more lucrative opportunity that we can’t pass up.

What’s critical to remember at any career stage or key decision point is that change doesn’t have to be scary. The ups and downs are all a normal part of our human development.

Plan Your Legacy Early

For my late adulthood, I’m aiming for “elderhood”. Of course, I don’t expect to achieve global Elder status as Jimmy Carter or Bishop Desmond Tutu have. But holding them as examples, I hope my path of human development will bring me to a place of wisdom and compassion. My deep desire is that all of us can see this stage of life as a time of sharing accumulated perspectives and skills with younger generations.

This plan only works, though, if society and organizations integrate elders into the day-to-day of human endeavor. Unfortunately, our current social model is lose-lose. We segregate our elders out of the workplace and into social circles where they interact minimally with other generations. As a result, the rest of us miss out on the nourishment their reflections can provide.

In the 21st century, the future feels uncertain. It may be challenging to picture late adulthood or a post-career lifestyle. I would encourage cultivating this one seed of hope: expect to stay active well past age 65. At whatever age or health status you leave paid employment, make arrangements to stay involved in the community by volunteering regularly or by maintaining intentional relationships with younger professionals, families, or children.

Early career or in mid-life, we can’t know what our legacy will be. However, the first step in establishing your legacy is the simple imaginative act of considering it. Remember, it’s a long game. Your last decades of life can be filled with joy and productivity.

I’ll close by recommending one more delightful source of inspiration, the film If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast. Though some of the documentary’s featured elders have since passed, let their experiences encourage you to plan joyfully for the remainder of your own life and career.