There has been some attention recently focusing on women returners to work. However, in this article from Stanford, psychologist Laura Carstensen, the founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity goes one step further, suggesting we shouldn’t start working full-time until we are 40.
And she is not just talking about women. She is arguing for a new model around career pacing. One where “rather than a four-decade professional sprint that ends abruptly at 65, we should be planning for marathon careers that last longer but have more breaks along the way for learning, family needs, and obligations outside the workplace.”
In theory this sounds sensible and practical, but Carstensen admits that starting the ball rolling is hard. Her current work involves redesigning institutions to accommodate the lives that people actually have.
For many of us, adulthood and our career paths can feel mapped-out in a way that’s very structured and often quite constricted. So would we want a “marathon career” from our early twenties into our seventies or even eighties? Personal circumstances would obviously play a key part here. Financial pressures are usually higher at the start of your career, which often co-incides with a number of “firsts” - first car, first house and first baby.
My personal journey followed a traditional route straight to university at 18, dropping out after a year, and starting a different course. After working full-time for 7 years in two private sector companies I left to have my first baby. This was in the early eighties when most women chose to stay at home, and I did likewise, but started some part-time work from home when my younger daughter was 3. This decade also co-incided with caring responsibilities for my parents, so effectively I had 11 years out of the formal workplace.
During my career break, technology had exploded, and by the early nineties when I was ready to return I faced a pretty monumental skills-gap. I took advantage of some classes being run by the local adult education department and started to crack the mysteries and wonders of computers.
Ok, I wasn't using such antiquated tools as these, but I never fail to be astonished at the speed of technological progress. And because I can remember a life before Google, social media, word processing, mobile phones etc I am always keen to learn the next wave that comes along. I also treat technology with a healthy respect, and never take it for granted. I guess I am a true digital immigrant.
Let's start full-time work at 40!
Going back to Carstensen’s suggestion that full-time work should begin at 40, strangely enough that is exactly when my own career took off. With no planning or strategy, I fell into a temporary part-time position in a third sector organisation just as it hit a crisis point and was about to be reinvented as a social enterprise and charitable business.
My initial temporary post became permanent, and then full-time and then much much more than a job. It became a vocation, and a passion, and unleashed almost limitless opportunities to grow and develop both personally and professionally.
Now, had I taken this job in my twenties, I would been unable to devote the time and energy it required and my story would be very different. But it came along just at the right time, and I undertook an Executive MBA when I was 50.
I won’t pretend that at times I felt stretched almost beyond my limits – intellectually, physically and emotionally. Working full-time, studying in the evenings and having classes at the weekend was hard. But that was nothing compared to sitting exams after almost 30 years! My study buddy was my younger daughter who was doing her finals in genetics, so that was an amazing bonding process.
But, had I found it easy, it wouldn’t have been so rewarding. And the course content made so much sense. None of it was abstract, so the case studies, modules and interactive discussions had a multiplier effect on my day to day practice, and the academic aspect underpinned and reinforced that same practice.
So, what’s the next chapter in my story?
I doubt that I would have had the physical stamina to have continued working full-time for much longer, but going back to Carstensen’s theory, if flexibility is key to any new model, then I believe I have been lucky enough to make the right choices at the right time.
And what about women returners today? I am pleased that there is more formal support and encouragement available, with initiatives like Equate's returnships and Women Returners. It is hard returning to the workforce after a break, and I know some women who felt particularly inadequate and lacking in confidence after starting a family and never made a full return. Again attitudes and approaches are shifting, and today women are not expected to be the main caregiver, but we are still some way off seeing this as the norm.
So, I wonder what the future will hold for my two daughters who are in their early thirties. Will they see much change during the course of their careers, or will it take another generation for major change to filter through? One thing is for sure. It has been recognised for centuries that we all need to work in some shape or form.
Work is nature’s physician and essential to human happiness.
Galen AD 580
Take care. Lead well.