Life Cycle Flexibility – Disrupting the Trajectory of Work – by Paul Rupert

Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society. Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate.”
–Larry Fink, CEO, $6 Trillion BlackRock investment manager in his 2018 advisory letter

Mr. Fink’s extraordinary, yet seemingly common sense conclusion is that we need to consider caring not only for shareholders but also for stakeholders, especially employees. But is that a likely shift?

Employers spent a century seeking smooth growth, as employees found serial turbulence

The last century of primary business focus – and thus the organization of work – has been shareholder gain. But capital accumulation may be faltering as the transforming engine of social progress. An innovative, determined, narrowly accountable private sector turned a nation of farmers and shopkeepers into a productive colossus that dominates the global economy. We play an outsized role in feeding, clothing and wiring the world. Our government has played the role of midwife and back-up caregiver in this process.

Typical American lives were dramatically reshaped in this evolution. Whole populations migrated from rural to urban and then suburban homes. Farmers became factory workers, their children became office dwellers. Since World War II, that agrarian model has been largely replaced by a new regimen: an education cycle, a period of wage-based work and then death or idle years – aka, school/work/retirement. That remains today’s core model. Or does it?

Enter LONGEVITY as the Great Disrupter

As a society, we tend to be short-term doers rather than long-term planners. Several decades ago, no powerful and farsighted group of business, government, medical and labor leaders sat down and said, “Let’s dramatically lengthen our life spans! Public health campaigns can wipe out epidemics! Pharmaceuticals can treat life-threatening diseases! A massive healthcare system can achieve miracles! We can add two or three decades to our lives!” Had such a meeting occurred, would a subsequent gathering have followed to consider the impact of this blessing on the way we would work and live?

No, such Longevity Summits did not occur and no plan to redesign the trajectory of work exists. And we are living with the consequences. Many forces and trends have converged in 2018 to insist that we need a fundamental rethinking of today’s rigid life and work cycles.

The essential shift from rigid “flexibility” to fluid work trajectories and practices

We are well past the need for “flexible work” in the form of coming in a half-hour later or working at home while waiting for the plumber. We need flexible careers, flexible management and flexible organizations to integrate the fluid patterns of life into working lives that continue for as long as 60 or 70 years. Tough as it might be mentally and practically to throw off the restraints of tightly held assumptions and outmoded practices, brutal realities offer little choice. Among the drivers of long overdue transformation are:

  • A rigid on/off view of work that undermines families, long-term health and economic security
  • The unprecedented shift of the costs of college education to debt-laden students
  • Assaults on the social safety net of robust pensions, social security, Medicare and Medicaid
  • A massive transfer of wealth through tax cuts that lower rates and bring offshore billions home
  • Intensifying fears of automation and a benefit-free future of “Gig Economy” and part-time work
  • Perceived employment tensions between debt-ridden millennials and stressed pre-retirees

An objective and creative observer would likely say that it’s stunning that we moved from the Model T in the 1930s to a Tesla on a rocket this year, but the way we organize our work and lives remains static. There are numerous reinventions to consider, and we will outline a blueprint for change in the next several essays. A few provocative, yet feasible changes follow.

Encourage “gap decades”: The school to work transition is the first area to reconsider. I have the joy and challenge of being the Boomer Dad of a millennial son, a chef in training. I bring to discussions of his future career 50 years of work in the traditional pattern. I could just encourage more of the same for him. As he prepares to graduate from the Culinary Institute of America, visions of The Ultimate Restaurant dance in his head. But since he leaves school single, debt-free and adventurous, for the past year I’ve been strongly supporting his dream while seriously challenging his timeline.

It all starts with longevity. I explain that I may reach a healthy 80+, barring catastrophic events. However, healthy at 21, he and his cohort will likely be going strong into their 90s or 100s. If he starts a restaurant next year, he could well run it or numerous successors for as many as 70 years until retiring at age 90. This is a brutal industry that wears people out early. Maybe, I suggest, he should consider a gap decade before he commits to a start-up. Take a breath, take a break, travel the world and cook in the great global kitchens. Start your restaurant at age 30, invent a new cuisine, save well and take “early retirement” at 80. And in the process make it more feasible for older chefs to ply their trade without being “aged out.” Is such an approach feasible?

Erase student debt: A post-graduation gap of any length – what could also be called a pre-career break — is a non-starter for the millions graduating today’s mandatory college facing heavy debts. The imposing monthly payments start immediately. These young graduates start working with a drag equivalent to a mortgage that is unrelieved by the joy of a spouse and a house. They might gain significantly from deeply instructive periods of travel, teaching, volunteer work at home and abroad. Their loan obligations make the idea unthinkable.

A small number of companies have begun modest programs to assist their employee in repaying student loans. Perhaps as companies consider ways to respond to the needs of their stakeholders, not just shareholders, this unplanned but severe phenomenon shaping and limiting our collective future could be addressed with a portion of record profits and repatriated billions.

Multiply on/off ramps: As women – still the primary caregivers in modern America – entered the workforce in huge numbers in the last couple decades, companies had to adjust to the “disruption” of babies, children, illnesses, etc. Modest adjustments were made: some flex, some leaves, some child care supports. As the workforce evolves and ages, new challenges emerge. Chronic illnesses and injuries present managers with a difficult choice between loss of talent and provision of more complex periods of flexibility and leaves.

Longer work, flexible retirement: Just as the Boomers have changed many work practices to date, they are beginning to challenge “early retirement” and the 65 sell-by date as they speed toward abrupt and rigid exits. Not only are they facing great loss, but they are removing their talent from tight labor markets and taking valuable knowledge and experience with them. Like a glacier slowly engulfing outlying villages, some industries and companies are already sounding the alarm. We cannot afford to waste such a huge productive resource and not just allow, but force a powerful generation into dependency on unsustainable safety net programs. It’s time to end the notion of a senior “sell-by date.” Milk curdles, people don’t.

“Flexibility” needs reinvention

None of these changes, or even more desirable and valuable ones, will come quickly and easily. Few things of lasting value ever do. This is rare and timely opportunity to seize on this inflection point to shape a better future for our grandparents, parents, partners, children and grandchildren. It is well past time to do the planning for longevity that never happened and to do redesign and rebuild the infrastructure that matters most: the way we integrate work and life over 100-year lifespans. What seem like distant concerns of automation and potential job loss, the benefits and challenges of the Gig economy and inter-generational dialogue inside companies should all be addressed as we move forward intentionally and creatively

© 2018 Rupert Organizational Design. All Rights Reserved

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