As career development practitioners, we can become leaders in countering the negative effects of the aging mindset that permeates our culture
By Elizabeth Mahler and John Thompson
Like most people in our culture, career development practitioners are subject to the influence of commonly held ideas. To illustrate, we offer the following quiz.
A woman pays a visit to a career counsellor and provides the following information: she recently left a position and is now technically unemployed; she’s in good health with plenty of energy; she believes she has another 20 years of work in her, but would prefer employment that is both less physically demanding and more meaningful; and she senses that she has a unique chance to do something different, but doesn’t know what that is, or how to find out. Consequently, she is feeling discouraged.
Which of the following statements is most likely to be true about this person?
- The client is 40 years old and was recently laid off.
- The client is 50 years old and recently quit her job after being diagnosed with a neurological disease that will begin to seriously affect her in about twenty years.
- The client is 60 years old.
If you share our culture’s aging mindset, we assume that you have chosen answer #1 or #2. We don’t expect people who are 60 years of age to be looking for guidance around the next 20 years of their working lives. We expect them to be thinking about retirement.
This 60-year-old woman can be said to be in a state of transition, but transition from what to what? Our culture provides developmental roadmaps for younger people, but there are few mainstream models of growth and development offered to those over 60. This made sense when life spans were shorter, but changing demographics call this thinking into question.
The results of an increasing life expectancy
A recent report from Statistics Canada (Decady & Greenberg, 2014) details the increase in the life expectancy of Canada’s population over the past century:
- In 2011, Canadians lived an average of 81.7 years. This is an increase of 24.6 years since 1921.
- In 1921, life expectancy at age 55 was 20 years. Today, a 55-year-old can expect to live, on average, an additional 29 years (to age 84).
What’s happening is a “Longevity Revolution.” Starting with the baby boomers, Canadians have been given a “Longevity Dividend” (Olshansky, 2006). This gift of time is generating a new life stage that manifests between middle age and elderhood. While culturally we have not yet settled on a label to describe this new stage, potential names are emerging, including the following:
- second adulthood or adulthood II (Bateson, 2010);
- encore (Freedman, 2007);
- the third act (Lawrence-Lightfoot, 2009); and
- the third age (Sadler, 2006).
Regardless of what “it” is called, cultural anthropologist Bateson (2010) suggests that “we have opened a new space partway through the life course, a second and different kind of adulthood, that proceeds old age, and as a result every stage of life is undergoing change.” She calls it “a new developmental stage … not an extension tacked on to old age.”
A century has passed since a phenomenon of this magnitude created the need for a shift in our thinking about human development. It was only after adolescence was acknowledged as a separate developmental stage between childhood and adulthood in the early 20th century that social systems such as high schools became integral parts of our culture. We are beginning to experience a similar phenomenon when considering the implications of an unprecedented longevity dividend on both individuals and society. This includes how we define, discuss and prepare for retirement.
Rueckert (2006) warns that, “You have to be careful with your metaphors.” Metaphors have a very powerful effect on how we define situations, and assess what the situation calls for. Our society uses the metaphor of retirement to conceptualize the end of the working life of older adults. To retire is to remove oneself from the field. We also use idioms to convey this idea of withdrawal. Put out to pasture. Implicit in this language of retirement is the idea that the time for accepting challenges and making meaningful contributions has passed.
This metaphor is problematic for a society that has the resources to enable individuals to lead healthy and active lives well into their 80s and 90s. That makes for a lot of years of withdrawal. It also makes for a lot of lost opportunities for both the individuals involved and our society as a whole.
Helping older workers transition into a new life stage
Career development practitioners have a lot to offer individuals who are transitioning to a post-60 working life. To do this, our profession needs to find a new name (or metaphor) to describe what is becoming a new and meaningful period of career development and engagement.
Consider the word “graduation.” Graduation marks a transition, but not as a process of withdrawal. Suzanne Cook’s (2015) term redirection also implies a transition process. Both these words indicate forward movement into a new phase of life that is worthy of esteem and ambition; one that offers individuals an opportunity to continue growing and developing.
As career practitioners, we need to understand that many older adults have the chance to move into another important phase of life. This phase includes contributing through work, even if this contribution takes a new form. This new way of thinking recognizes that a person’s career path does not stop at age 60. Career practitioners have the rare opportunity to create a new understanding of that path – and of the length of time it occupies in one’s life.
It is not the responsibility of the career development profession to solve this problem of language, and the related effect of metaphors on perceptions. But we can play a significant role. We can see the negative effects of the aging mindset that permeates our culture. This is a challenge we are well equipped to address. We already have the expertise to become leaders in this effort.
For these reasons, the time has come to put the idea of retirement, at least as it is currently understood, out to pasture.
Elizabeth Mahler spent 25 years within continuing education, higher education, corporate and K-12 educational environments, leading program development and strategic planning efforts. She is currently an Associate Teaching Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies (Boston, MA).
John Thompson spent 30 years facilitating learning and decision-making in workplace settings. He holds a PhD in Human Development and Applied Psychology. At age 66, he is pursuing an encore career as a career development practitioner.
Bateson, M. C. (2010). Composing a further life: The age of active wisdom. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
Cook, S. L. (2015). “Redirection: An extension of career during retirement”. The Gerontologist, 55(3), 360-373.
Decady, Y. & Greenberg, L. (2014, July). “Ninety years of change in life expectancy”. Health at a Glance. Statistics Canada Catalogue, No. 82-624-X.
Freedman, M. (2007). Encore: Finding work that matters in the second half of life. New York, NY: Public Affairs.
Lawrence-Lightfoot, S. (2009). The third chapter: Passion, risk, and adventure in the 25 years after 50. New York, NY: Sarah Crichton Books.
Olshansky, S. J., Perry, D., Miller, R.A., & Butler, R. N. (March, 2006). “In pursuit of the longevity dividend: What should we be doing to prepare for the unprecedented aging of humanity?” The Scientist, 20(3), 28-36.
Rueckert, W. H. (2006). “Metaphor and reality: A meditation on man, nature, and words”. KB Journal, 2(2). Retrieved from http://www.kbjournal.org/spring2006
Sadler, W.A. (Spring 2006). “Changing life options: Uncovering the riches of the third age”. The LLI Review, Inaugural edition.