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Older Workers Can Reap New Rewards by Climbing the Corporate…Lattice?
posted 10.24.2012

By Jeff Schwartz

For much of the 20th century, human life in America went something like this: Go to school, maybe college. Find a job. Stick with it. Climb the corporate ladder. Turn 65. Retire, get a gold watch, move south to play bingo and eat dinner at 4:30. A whole life narrative built off a philosophy of “once and done”—one degree, one career, one direction.

This once-and-done model is fading: new opportunities abound in continuing education, and flex modes of work accommodate those who are past traditional retirement age but not ready to call it quits. But these programs in work and education do not go far enough; they simply bolt on additional chapters to the later stages of one’s life. Even the more notable concepts of productive aging, like Marc Freedman’s encore career, operate within this paradigm. They extend the onceand-done approach by attaching appendices on to life’s final decades.

The Lattice Career: A Nonlinear Move

Yet, as lives stretch into the 80s, 90s and even 100s, it is possible to re-imagine all parts of the life course. Instead of adding to the later stages of life, we need to move toward “the lattice career and life”—a composite, nonlinear approach to work, family, education and social pursuits. 

Cathleen Benko and Molly Anderson, two of my colleagues at Deloitte, wrote in The Corporate Lattice: Achieving High Performance in the Changing World of Work (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2010) that the corporate ladder model is giving way to the corporate lattice approach, in which careers are not constructed upon linear trajectories. Rather, they involve a series of choices—people can navigate their careers up, down and to the side; they can go faster and slower, and they can move in and out in order to raise children, care for parents or explore new pursuits.

It is time to extend this lattice perspective to our entire lives. With 70 million people in the United States becoming 65 and older by 2030—compared to just 7.8 million who were that age when Social Security was initiated in 1935—it is a national imperative to keep older Americans economically relevant. And, on a personal level, average Americans who follow traditional retirement plans could be out of work for up to four decades.

In the lattice career and life, people develop a growing portfolio of skills and experiences enabling them to remain engaged in work, family and social life. Compared to the traditional once-and-done approach, this is a real shift. In a nonlinear life sequence, we may go to college (on a campus, online or both) in our late teens and early 20s, again in our late 30s and perhaps again in our 50s or 60s, to reskill ourselves for work or other pursuits.

The Lattice Life Requires Imagination

As we think about ways to implement the lattice approach, keep in mind two key points. 

First, the lattice career and life integrate 21st-century longevity throughout all stages of life. This incorporated, interspersed view of longevity is important because it changes how we think about careers, education, and familial and social pursuits before we “get old.” We anticipate a longer, extended period of active life, and we frame our decisions and plans accordingly. In this model, there are many sequences with various aspects and endeavors of life mixed with periods of full- and part-time activity.

Second, the lattice career and life emphasize that we remain flexible, adaptable and committed to education and skill development. We must position ourselves to succeed in multiple careers. In this sense, the lattice career builds upon Lynda Gratton’s concept of “serial mastery,” as discussed in The Shift (U.K.: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011). According to Gratton, serial mastery recognizes the need to develop deep knowledge and competencies across several domains during the course of our lives. Given the rapidly changing nature of many fields, one needs a portfolio of deep, flexible skills in order to adapt and learn to meet new demands.

More broadly, the lattice career and life requires we re-imagine our societal institutions, which need a thorough redesign to serve and meet 21st-century needs. How, for example, can educational institutions provide deep, relevant and ongoing skill development beyond the traditional “school age” period from ages 5 to 22? And how to fund this development?

Further, how can social and community organizations break down existing age barriers and norms? How can national programs (i.e., the military, the Peace Corps or Teach for America) and local programs (i.e., food pantries, literacy programs, etc.) be integrated across life courses and engage volunteers of all ages?

In the 21st century, we have the opportunity to design our lives and become serial masters. We can contribute to social, political and economic success and defy the traditional modes of retirement that would relegate us to bingo parlors and buffet lines. The lattice approach opens new life avenues and possibilities, and positions the escalating aging population to remain a vital cohort that contributes to all aspects of society. Carpe diem!

Jeff Schwartz is senior director, Deloitte Consulting, and Global Leader, Human Capital Marketing, New Delhi.

Editor’s Note: This article appears in the November/December 2012, issue of Aging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in aging research, practice and policy nationwide. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at our online store.

Photo: istockphoto/retrorocket

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