I was recently a guest at a STEMX award ceremony (they are the folks who encourage young people into careers in science and technology). It was an inspiring venue with the awards being presented by local dignitaries, resplendent in their chains of office. The messages too were upbeat and encouraging – you’re wanted, you’re needed and a great career awaits you in science.

As I listened speaker after speaker, I became increasingly aware of what was not being said. The careers on offer have every prospect of lasting 70 years, so its important these young professionals follow a career they will enjoy. My question was why the silence, and the answers I came up with were:

  1. The older generation fear this may be a frightening prospect for today’s youth
  2. Making the point raises a raft of difficult questions
  3. There are serious implications for the older generation.

Exploring these further:

Working longer seems bad news until you explore the alternative. When Bismark gave Germany the world’s first state pension scheme he set the retirement age at 65. This sounded wonderful until you realized that German life expectancy at the time was 47. If the UK had linked retirement age to increasing life expectancy at the time our state retirement age today would be 98! Working longer comes from being around longer, and knowing that early allows time to plan.

The questions raised are only difficult because there are no clear answers. Planning based on the experience of earlier generations is pure folly, our fastest growing social demographic is the 65 plus category – the Baby Boomers.  At every stage of life so far this generation have re-written to rules and there is nothing to suggest they won’t be re-writing the rules of retirement. When our young ask about their life prospects the truthful answer is, we don’t know!

The biggest reason for the wall of silence on the subject of working longer is probably the uncomfortable implications for the audience. The move from 40 year careers to 70 year careers will not happen overnight, it has already started and the trend will continue. For many in the audience this is new and unwelcome news. Their personal, financial and health planning were firmly established on the old model – working longer, funding a longer retirement and maintaining health into old age are new and uncomfortable challenges.