The end of linear work lives: crossings & transitions

Laetitia@Work #22

Hi everyone,

Today I’d like to write about crossings and transitions in professional lives (and lives in general). A few days ago I was asked to ponder the next “crossings” we’ll face as a society and speak about the personal “crossings” I had made in my life. The current pandemic can be seen as a “crossing” (although we don’t really know where/when the other side is). Climate change could come with multiple crossings. As far as personal lives are concerned we face multiple ones: depression, accidents, bereavement, job losses, but also more positive ones like parenthood. 

Talking about crossings, I realised mine had mostly been painful (changing jobs, for example). I also realised that I generally prefer to think about “transitions” rather than “crossings”. There’s a difference. Crossings are moments when possibilities cross and you have to make a choice and/or get across a difficult, dangerous phase. By contrast, transitions are a longer process or period of change from one condition to another that involve preparation. Transitions involve you changing to adapt to a different condition. They don’t occur unexpectedly. And they can be supported by institutions (social protection, education, firm).

people standing on pedestrian lane

By and large we still see radical life changes as accidents. We see them as extraordinary events for which there’s no planning possible. Most pension systems (like the French one) see career changes as exceptions, and linear work lives as the norm. In most higher education systems lifelong education is actually anecdotal (what’s the proportion of students over 40 in universities?). What would it take for all crossings to become transitions? It would take individual preparation and institutional support. Read on 👇

Linear is dead

Last year I read this amazing book that I mention all the time now. Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott’s The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity really is a must-read. The authors explain that we’ve inherited this model of the “three-stage life” (education, work and retirement) from the 20th century. It shaped all of our institutions: education, legislation, taxation, social protection, and even human resources. All these institutions view work lives as linear: the older you are, the more experienced you’re supposed to be. You’re supposed to earn more as you grow older. 

For each age, there’s a stage. Age cohorts are viewed as separate, homogeneous entities that only mingle in specific contexts (family life, and education because the old are supposed to teach the young). The young are expected to be agile and malleable whereas the old are believed to be wiser but less agile. Whether there’s ageism or not, there are a lot of stereotypes in that vision. If your age doesn’t fit your stage (or the other way around), it will take some form of “crossing”, it will be a transgression.

As Gratton and Scott explain, this linear view of life is increasingly incompatible with our demography. We live longer than previous generations, much longer. Stretching the second stage of our lives without changing anything else is going to be unsustainable, if only because it gets harder and harder to find a job after a certain age. 

The three-stage model of life is dead. This is because the only way to make the three-stage life work financially is to create a very long second stage of working, but (…) the likely impact on non-financial assets such as productivity or vitality is ultimately undesirable.

There are essentially 5 reasons why the three-stage life is a thing of the past:

  • Demography: We live longer. If you have a look at our age pyramid, you see that a system that was viable when the pyramid had a pyramid shape faces unending challenges when the ‘pyramid’ is the shape of a mushroom. Also for many individuals living close to a hundred years and expected to work close to 50 years, linear may get boring. They don’t just live longer, they stay healthy longer too. Also, many more people will need to stop their careers at some point to look after an elderly parent. (Just read this article I wrote about The 100-Year Life).

  • Technological change: the digital revolution brought about a series of changes that transformed work and disrupted entire sectors. Companies die faster. Skills get obsolete faster. But new jobs get created too. For many people, a linear career won’t be possible because their jobs will disappear, they’ll need re-skilling or up-skilling, and they may have to transition to a new sector or a new place. (How do we keep skills and learning relevant in the changing world of work? asks the OECD).

  • The economy: the distribution of wealth has changed over the past 40 years. Workers who’ve entered the job market after 1990 (i.e. most of today’s workers, actually) have a smaller share of the economic pie. In the US, millennials are straddled with student debt because education is more expensive. They can’t access housing because real estate prices have grown faster than wages in large cities. For many people, the “normal” stage that fits their age is just not accessible anymore. The three-stage life has become a pipe dream. (The Atlantic writes that “Millennials don’t stand a chance”).

  • The environment: either we address climate change and we’ll have to change the way we do things (which will mean different jobs, different skills and career changes), or we don’t and that means more disasters, more refugees, more conflicts, more pandemics… Either way it will not leave the three-stage model intact. And probably the consequences we’ll have to suffer will be a combination of both (addressing it and not addressing it). (See this rather positive OECD report about “Greening Jobs and Skills” and this negative article about “major job losses with climate change”).

  • Politics and geopolitics: more protectionism, more nationalism, less immigration, less foreign investment… The “great fragmentation” of the world we’ve been seeing since Brexit and the election of Trump is accelerating. It will not only have an impact on our way of life, it will also impact jobs. There are possible opportunities (insourcing?), but mostly I’d say major threats (like stalled growth because you can’t recruit the talent you need (Trump targets foreign workers with new visa freeze, BBC), which means fewer jobs in other sectors. (Nicolas and I recorded this podcast in French For Nouveau Départ about the “great fragmentation”).

Preparing for a life of transitions

It seems pretty clear that the three-stage life will be replaced by a multi-stage life where age doesn’t necessarily fit a matching stage. Some people may start a second career at 40 and be managed by someone younger who’s in their first career. In a multi-stage life you may see someone younger be more “experienced” professionally than their older colleague. You may also see older workers whose brain plasticity is intact and who have remained agile. 

It would help to see career changes as transitions rather than crossings. As individuals, it means we need to prepare for them. For our institutions, it means a lot of things will have to change so people can be supported in these changes. As I wrote a few years ago in an article titled “In-Between Waves”:

There is a growing mismatch between our institutions and the timing of our work lives. Fewer people are covered by the social insurance institutions created for the post-war boom years. Our education systems aren’t meant for continuous learning. Our pension systems are increasingly failing. Unemployment insurance is meant for insiders only. Non-salaried freelance workers are in the process of inventing their own institutions, but by and large they’re still not seen as a new norm by government, public services and society at large. That makes it harder for them to get access to decent housing for example.

Many institutional changes can be imagined:

  • The most obvious one (at least for Silicon Valley thinkers) is the creation of a universal basic income;

  • Longer paternal leaves would be a great idea to help level the playing field between men and women when it comes to preparing for a life of transitions (parenthood is a big one);

  • Leaves to look after an elderly parent should be paid for and encouraged (as well as valued by companies when these workers return to the job market);

  • Unemployment benefits should be redefined: why limit these benefits to those who lose their jobs without a say in the matter? Why not imagine benefits for those preparing a transition (voluntarily)? And for the self-employed (really, what’s the difference now?);

  • Social insurance schemes should be created to cover new risks (housing and old-age dependence, in particular);

  • All competitive examinations to recruit civil servants should abandon their age limits;

  • Higher education institutions should cater to the needs of people from all class ages (and be free);

  • Social protection should follow people, not work contracts and make it easy for people to move seamlessly from one situation to another: “Portable benefits can be accumulated on a pro-rata basis across multiple employers, The RSA.

These are just a few examples of institutional changes. There are many more. “From the cradle to the grave” means lots of different things in a non-linear model. Also institutions include companies, and companies are not very good (yet) at thinking in a non-linear way. Ageism is rampant among recruiters.

Obviously turning crossings into transitions also involves personal preparation and a growth mindset. I did address this issue (or a part of it) in a previous newsletter titled “Navigating across cultures and getting ready for the future of work”:

If the life of our children (and ours) is likely to be composed of more transitions, then we’ll need to develop our transformational assets, i.e our ability to change and shift several times over the course of our lives. I discovered the concept of “transformational assets” in Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott’s remarkable book The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity. And I was so convinced by the concept that I’ve been using it in talks and articles ever since.

Also you’ll have to know yourself better, understand what you’re capable of, and mostly what you want and don’t want in life. Acquiring self-knowledge will be more critical than ever. A healthy dose of empathy may also come in handy. As Gratton and Scott write in their book, “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.”

🌳 I’m still in Normandy this month but I’ve actually moved and been to different places for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic 😷

I’m still developing the media I launched with Nicolas, Nouveau départ (in French). Subscribe here (for €15/month or €150/year) to listen to our podcasts. We’ve talked about how to prepare for the great fragmentation, demography and economic growth, SMBs… and much more.

For Welcome to the Jungle, I’ve written several new pieces (all in French this week):

Also I did another webinar with Jérémy Clédat to promote our new book 100 idées innovantes pour recruter des talents et les faire grandir: you can watch the replay here. And you can watch the webinar I did with The RSA (in English) with Carl Frey on YouTube: Bridges to the Future 🎙️


  • 🇸🇪 Sweden Tries Out a New Status: Pariah State, Thomas Erdbrink, The New York Times, June 2020: “Fearing the country’s lax approach to combating the coronavirus, Sweden’s Scandinavian neighbors have all closed their borders to Swedes (…) Swedish officials, including the architect of the country’s measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus, Anders Tegnell, are not amused. They say Swedes have been stigmatized by an international campaign to prove Sweden was wrong”

  • 👔 Flexible Working For All After Coronavirus? Don’t Underestimate The Risks, Josie Cox, Forbes, June 2020: “We found evidence of the marginalisation of part-time and flexible workers – a phenomenon produced by a mismatch between these ways of working and organisational cultures which equate commitment with the ability to work long hours (…) The inference here is that if someone asks to work flexibly - and, yes, that person is statistically more likely to be a woman - they’re likely to be labelled as less ambitious than others”

  • 🔨 ‘No specific skill will get you ahead in the future’—but this ‘way of thinking’ will, Vikram Mansharamani, CNBC, June 2020: ““to a man with a hammer, everything looks like nails.” But what if that man had a hammer, a screwdriver, and a wrench? Might he or she look to see if the flat top had a narrow slit, suggesting the use of a screwdriver? Or perhaps consider the shape of the flat top. Circle? Hexagon? Could a wrench be a more effective tool? (…) the mere addition of these tools can encourage a better understanding of a problem”

That’s all for today. I’ll be back in your mailbox in two weeks! 💌