When Paul Ryan declared “I cannot and I will not give up my family time” as he made a deal to become the next speaker of the House, he brought welcome attention to the flexible work patterns we need to develop in our era of greater longevity.
With life spans reaching into the 80s, 90s and even 100 as a matter of course, we need new thinking about how we work. Retirement at 60 or 65, with an additional 20 to 30 years of life ahead of us, is not fiscally sustainable nor socially desirable. But neither is it desirable for us to work in our 60s, 70s and 80s in the same way we worked in our 30s and 40s.
If flexible work hours are a condition of the job for Representative Ryan, that’s also true for the growing number of us over 60 who want to continue to work, but differently, with greater flexibility. The data are powerful and clear: Close to a third of the 16,000 people of all ages surveyed by the insurer Aegon believe they will work part-time before giving up work altogether, and almost one-fifth say they will work part-time throughout their retirement years. Moreover, according to a Merrill Lynch study, “pre-retirees want to work in what we today call retirement to stay mentally active (51%) and physically active (46%), earn money (51%), maintain social connections (32%) and have new challenges (28%).” Representative Ryan joins a large cohort of working mothers and the huge and growing population over 60 to create a sizable constituency demanding flexible work in our era.
And as more of us stay active and healthy, inside the workplace and out, society will get the added benefit of higher economic growth.
Representative Ryan has helped us see how our 21st century demographics – more old than young -- demand creative and innovative approaches not only to work but to other key areas such as health policy. For example, if our definition of work is changing, so too must our understanding of Medicare. Saving it will require recognizing the demographic changes that have occurred since its founding 50 years ago.
Representative Ryan isn’t the only one thinking about these issues. The World Economic Forum, one of the most prominent global NGOs, recently published a white paper titled, “How 21st-Century Longevity Can Create Markets and Drive Economic Growth.” One of its core issues is the need for different and more flexible work to align with aging populations in the 21st century. And so the American lawmaker is joined by a global chorus of those who understand this profound transformation.