Age is malleable

Laetitia@Work #28

Hi everyone,

A few years ago, I read Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott’s The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity. This week I interviewed Andrew Scott for Building Bridges about their new book, The New Long Life, and about learning and working in this age of longevity. One of the reasons I can’t stop talking about these books and what Scott and Gratton call “the end of the three-stage life” is that it fits so well with my vision of a more artisanal, always-be-learning future of work. Another reason is that they provide a more optimistic and empowering vision of the ageing process.

Phoenix (mythology) - Wikipedia

As I wrote in my previous newsletter, my daughter and I just moved to Munich, Germany last week (husband and son will join us next month). And our family move was motivated primarily by the idea of providing the family with an opportunity to learn new things, challenge our routine, and do a cognitively demanding linguistic and cultural “workout” for an extended period of time. I may already speak German, it ranks as my third language (and it’s a distant third), so the linguistic immersion is exhausting. 

Usually when I tell people that “navigating across cultures” is our method of education, they think we’re just doing it for our children. Because education is fundamentally still seen as a thing for children. But the (selfish) truth is that we’re doing it for ourselves too. “Age is malleable”, write Gratton and Scott. This means that education projects can be designed for 42-year olds as well as for 12-year olds. Our family is the “platform” to support our large-scale education project 👨‍👦 👩‍👧

Here are some more thoughts taken from and inspired by Gratton and Scott’s work👇

From the three-stage life to lifelong learning

An essential component of the Fordist work paradigm relied on what Gratton and Scott call the three-stage life (first education, then work and finally retirement). For each chronological age, there’s a matching life stage. And welfare state “cradle-to-grave” institutions tend to put people of the same age together and prevent age mixing. School classes are organised by age. Nursing homes are just for the elderly. There are entire Fordist-era communities based on age segregation. All this reinforces age stereotyping to the extent that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: your age really does define who you are.

Obviously this approach is increasingly challenged in our age of longevity. The age pyramid isn’t what it used to be. We live much longer and work much longer. What we learned as teenagers and young adults can’t be enough for careers of 45, 50 or 60 years. The fast pace of technological change and work transformation is compelling more of us to learn new skills or transition to new sectors. As life expectancy rises, our previously generous pension systems are fast disappearing.

Increasingly we’ll have to learn to design our own multi-stage life and learn new things at different stages. Life stages will become more age-agnostic. And age will become more and more malleable. 

“Too much of current policy is aimed at the final stage of life and viewed through the prism of a three-stage life. The consequences of a 100-year life are for everyone, not just the old, and involve far more than adjusting the level of pensions or flexing the date at which retirement starts.” “Issues of identity, choice and risk become central to questions of navigating a long life.” “So you will need to think about your identity in a different way from those who came before.” “Long lives are lives of transitions (…) Simply following the herd is not going to work” (The 100-Year Life)

“People will need more education as they live and work for longer. This extra education will need to be spread out over time rather than be front-loaded at the beginning of life. And if learning is no longer front-loaded then what needs to be learnt at the beginning must focus less on specific skills and knowledge and more on learning how to build the foundations for a lifetime of learning. As the social philosopher Eric Hoffer remarked: ‘In times of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists?’” (The New Long Life)

“Age isn’t destiny”: it is malleable

“Age isn’t destiny” anymore, but “it is profoundly influenced by your actions and beliefs”, Gratton and Scott write in The New Long Life. We see so many different ways of ageing, so many different ways to be 60 or 70. As we live longer we need to learn to “decouple” time and age. There’s chronological age, but there’s also biological age (the age of your body), sociological age (how society treats you), and subjective age (how you feel).

“As age becomes malleable, the link between these different concepts of age begins to shift (...) we can no longer rely on chronological milestones as the structuring mechanism of our life narrative. (...) 

Chronological age is both the dominant form of measuring age and is the foundation of the three-stage life. It also happens to be reinforced by a plethora of educational, social and government practices and policies: go to college at eighteen, get married in your twenties or early thirties, and retire at sixty-five. We haven’t always relied on chronological age; in fact, even birthday parties are a twentieth-century invention. For most of human history, people didn’t actually know their date or even year of birth. Chronological age became dominant only as governments began to collect accurate birth records in the nineteenth century. (...) The result is a form of numerical determinism.”

Once you embrace the idea that age is malleable, you begin to see why you should invest in your future self (I wrote a previous newsletter on that subject. It was titled “Hey, Present You: Future You would like a word”). You develop more empathy for the elderly too. And with a more positive perception of the ageing process, you tend to live longer! It’s also easier to see that you can learn at any age.

Learning at any age

Ageist employers believe older people are less capable of learning new things. Neuroscientists disagree: as they research neuroplasticity, they speak of the brain as a flexible muscle that can be trained, that can regain previously lost abilities, that can be stretched and challenged at any age. It is surprising how much our brains can do, even at 80 or 90, provided they are trained sufficiently.

As a lot of people stop challenging their brains sufficiently at some point in their lives, they do become less capable of learning. But it has little to do with biological age. “The real reason you can’t teach an old dog new tricks is not because the dog has become old, but because it has not continually learnt new tricks.”

The fact we can learn at any age doesn’t mean we learn the same way. Interestingly we develop different cognitive processes. We have different strengths and even different forms of intelligence. With more knowledge and experience, we develop a form of crystallised intelligence (that is accumulated over time), which is different from fluid intelligence (the ability to process information, memory use and deductive reasoning).

Gratton and Scott’s book provides an optimistic and empowering framework to help individuals “navigate transitions”. It gives even more merit to the idea that you can “live to learn”. As an old dog, you should continue to teach yourself new tricks, and you’ll be rewarded for it!

As far as work is concerned, ageism constitutes a terrible obstacle. If I was unemployed now, I might have to deal with the prejudice of ageist employers who see a woman over 40 as insufficiently “malleable”. That’s one of the reasons why more and more people over 40, and particularly over 50, decide to start their own companies. I’ve personally found entrepreneurship to be a wonderful vehicle to transition to a multi-stage life and continue to teach myself new tricks to navigate further transitions.

For more on the subject, here are a few other pieces you can read:

👉  The end of linear work lives: crossings & transitions. Laetitia@Work #22

👉  Hey, Present You: Future You would like a word. Laetitia@Work #11

👉  Navigating across cultures and getting ready for the future of work. Laetitia@Work #4

👉  Why Over-45s — Not Millennials — Represent the Future of the Workforce (Medium).

👉  Our future depends on old people (Medium).

🥨 🍻 🇩🇪 My daughter and I arrived in Munich last Thursday. Coming from France, we had to do a Covid test. We got the results after 36 hours, and we didn’t have to wait to do it, and we didn’t have to pay for anything! We look forward to buying new bikes and exploring the city and the region 🚴‍♀️

Nicolas and I have published many new Nouveau départ podcasts. Here are the last four: Les secrets pour faire grandir des startups 🧪, Normes vestimentaires et émancipation 👚, 30 ans d'unité allemande 🇩🇪, Pourquoi la bourse va bien quand tout va mal 📈 If you still haven’t subscribed yet, give it a try!

As I already wrote twice in this newsletter, I’m launching a new podcast in English 🇬🇧 to “build bridges” across cultures in fragmented Europe. I’ve already recorded the first three interviews! The latest was with Andrew Scott. Sign in to Building Bridges 🎙️ to listen to it.


  • ⏱️ Time Confetti and the Broken Promise of Leisure, Ashley Whillans, Behavioral Scientist, October 2020: “This is known as the autonomy paradox. We adopt mobile technologies to gain autonomy over when and how long we work, yet, ironically, we end up working all the time. Long blocks of free time we used to enjoy are now interrupted constantly by our smart watches, phones, tablets, and laptops. This situation taxes us cognitively, and fragments our leisure time in a way that makes it hard to use this time for something that will relieve stress or make us happy.”

  • 🏅 How Focusing on Individual Achievement Favors the Upper Class, Andrea Dittmann, Behavioral Scientist, September 2020: “Achievement is truly in the eye of the beholder. Creating more inclusive definitions of what it means to be competent and training people from different social-class contexts how to be effective at both individual and group tasks can help reduce social-class achievement gaps. We might even come to recognize that one style of achievement is not superior to the other, but simply different. We can also recognize that people from different class contexts bring different skills to the table.”

  • ⚙️ Does Every Country Need Their Own DARPA?, Nicolas Colin, European Straits, October 2020: “The truth is that today’s equivalent of a DARPA is probably very different from the agency that was studied in detail by economists and historians. I understand the need to use historical precedents to make an impression on naive politicians or the public. But when it comes to economic development and innovation, we deserve more imagination, especially from a great mind such as Philippe Aghion.”

Enjoy the next two weeks! And don’t forget to teach yourself new tricks 🐕 😜