Live long and prosper?

Sure, but first we need to reinvent 21st-century careers for century-long lives


Posted by Jeff Schwartz, David Mallon, on February 8, 2019.

Of all the trends and topics we talk with organizations about, there’s one that consistently causes an almost visceral response: careers. The way careers are changing, the evolving relationship between workers and employers, and what it even means to have a career today are causing people a lot of anxiety, both in the business context of managing a workforce and personally, as individuals managing their own work life. Is all the angst warranted? There’s no doubt careers have changed and will keep changing, and with change comes uneasiness. But there’s also great opportunity for reimagining and reinventing rewarding careers.

What’s changed? The good news is we live in an age where many people born in the last 20 or 30 years can expect to live to be 100. So, a 21st-century career, in a 100-year life, means potentially working for 50 or 60 years. At the same time, the average time at a job is just over four years,1 and the half-life of a learned domain skill (such as a computer language) is five years2. That’s a lot of job change (up to 20 jobs in a career!) and ongoing skills development needed.

Another data point in the mix: two-thirds (65 percent) of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job roles that don’t exist today. If that seems high, consider the jobs today that didn’t exist 15 years ago…jobs related to search engine optimization, mobile telephony, social media, robotics, drones, Internet of Things (IoT), autonomous vehicles, and more. The cloud didn’t even exist as a technology platform.

This is the new reality, and it’s very different from the old reality where careers averaged 30 or 35 years, involved what you went to school for, and typically progressed up a ladder with a half-dozen or so job rungs from junior staff to executive. Today, many careers are non-linear—more lattice than ladder— and involve preparing yourself for jobs and capabilities where the specifics haven’t been invented because the jobs haven’t been invented.

For individuals, uncertainty = anxiety

It’s easy to see how the uncertainty can be anxiety provoking. The whole vocabulary of work has changed—new job descriptions are often vastly different from traditional ones, and many older workers in the job market are unsure how to describe their experiences and capabilities and what they bring to an employer’s table. Younger workers are often anxious about working in a place that enables them to learn and develop as they would like, and about being able to reskill and reposition themselves if their jobs are made obsolete over time.

The pressure’s on organizations, too

Organizations are being impacted by changing careers as much as individuals. Having a workforce with a mix of full- and part-time employees, managed contractors, gig workers, and freelancers means how value is derived from the workforce has become exponentially more complex. Long-held basics of job architecture and even competencies and skills need to be rethought. And, according to our research, many organizations are far behind. Half the companies we surveyed say they don’t have any plans to assist older workers with their careers. And yet we know that in 2024, 1 in 4 US workers will be over the age of 55 (in 1994 it was 1 in 10). Organizations are also increasingly expected to operate more transparently, including their internal talent practices and the career opportunities workers can expect, if they hope to attract and retain the best people.

Amid the angst, where’s the opportunity?

Even though we don’t know what jobs may become obsolete or what new jobs may rise up in their place, we do know that adaptability and the willingness to learn will always be critical career components. Leading organizations and individuals are shifting toward a model that empowers individuals to acquire valuable experiences, explore new roles, and continually reinvent themselves.

For individuals…

  • Shift your thinking. Careers are becoming less about formal titles and positions and more about the value you can bring to an organization. In this context, the personal measure of career growth shifts from “I have a new job or new title” to “I have deeper and broader skills, therefore I can contribute more value.”
  • Focus on learning—whenever, wherever, however. Recognize that there are almost daily moments of potential career growth to be realized IF you act intentionally to maximize the learning inherent in daily work choices, such as the projects you work on, innovations you spark, opportunities you identify, and problems you solve.
  • Capitalize on your interests, strengths, and passions. In the future of work, where people and machines work side by side, innately human skills that robots can’t replicate become even more important. Especially seek opportunities to nurture and expand these skills, such as creativity, problem-solving, and social skills, even if you’re in a technical role.

For organizations…

  • Throw away the mold. Recognize that conventional career models based on employees “owning” their own careers with little guidance from their employers beyond giving them libraries of content to look at are insufficient and increasingly obsolete.
  • Identify the skills of the future. HR and the business should work together to determine what skills will be needed to work differently in the future. Identifying these skills can help you figure out how to transform job architectures, learning programs, and rewards to make them more attractive to talent and more useful to the organization.
  • Take charge. Commit to internal mobility and build a transparent, efficient internal marketplace for talent so you will be better equipped to solve for your own talent needs.
  • Follow through. Develop programs, processes, and systems that align to this new philosophy, including broad involvement of leadership, clear messaging of opportunity, potential, and desired direction, and the enabling infrastructure to match.

Long and prosperous careers depend on people and organizations

Retooling careers for longer lives and a new future of work will require open minds and fresh approaches from individuals and organization alike. We truly are all in this together, and by working together to reinvent careers, we can all live long and prosper.

Jeff SchwartzJeff Schwartz is a principal in the Human Capital practice of Deloitte Consulting LLP and serves as Deloitte’s global leader for Human Capital Marketing, Eminence, and Brand, and the US leader for the Future of Work. He launched Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends research in 2011.
David MallonDavid Mallon is vice president and chief analyst at Bersin™, Deloitte Consulting LLP.


1 Employer Tenure Summary, Economic News Release, Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Department of Labor, September 20, 2018, https://www.bls.gov/news.release/tenure.nr0.html.
2 Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, 2011.
3 Scott McLeod and Karl Fisch, “Shift Happens,” http://apolloideas.com/shifthappens/.
4 Dimple Agarwal, Josh Bersin, Gaurav Lahiri, Jeff Schwartz, Erica Volini, “The longevity dividend: Work in an era of 100-year lives,” 2018 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends, https://hctrendsapp.deloitte.com/reports/2018/the-longevity-dividend.html.
5 https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2015/article/labor-force-projections-to-2024.html

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