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Policy Insights

From Age-Flex to Flex-Work

How increasing life expectancy could contribute to gender equality in leadership positions

by James W. Vaupel

Everyone talks about our new life courses in view of increasing life expectancy – but what about reconciliation of family and career?

In numerous sectors of the economy and other branches of society, many of the leading positions are predominantly occupied by men. This has led to, for example, debates about obligatory quota regulations within the governing boards of listed companies to allow females to break through the so-called “glass ceiling” of gender-specific career paths.

Among further concepts, one important factor should attract more attention – for parents, both men and women, this “glass ceiling” actually appears as the dead end of a “bottleneck”: Career paths require qualifications for leadership positions that have to be obtained between the ages of 25 to 45, depending on the point in time when a candidate has completed his or her tertiary education.

For example, the “publish or perish” principle in top positions in research, as well as journalism, requires continuous job productivity at younger ages. In the economy or in public administration, climbing the job ladder has to start early if one would like to reach top-level positions. However, this typically coincides with the period when people want to have and raise children, and establish a child-friendly environment for their family.

The so-called “rush-hour-of-life” where people have to run careers and family formation in parallel are putting particularly young families under strong pressure. Furthermore, parents fear losing precious time for developing their career and worry about becoming less competitive in the labour market. Even if reconciliation of work and family has been improved (e.g. by supporting public childcare and extending parental leave periods), parents need to worry that they will miss out on career opportunities if they take advantage of leave policies. As a consequence, policies may have ameliorated the incompatibility of work and family life, but they have not completely resolved the incompatibility of career building and having a family life.

We lack immediate and innovative policies that break up labour market structures and alter firms’ hiring and career policies. However, there is the potential for change. The most powerful argument comes from demography: Children born today have good chances to reach the age of 100 and on average, today’s 70-year-olds tend to perform the same in terms of physical and mental strength as the 60-year-olds one generation before. This development has pushed governments to increase retirement ages and implement flexible retirement schemes. While we alter the employment patterns at the end of the life course, shouldn’t that provoke a debate on the redistribution of lifetime employment?

Extended working life could allow parents to work less in the period of their lives when they can raise children and make up for this “lost time” by working longer and contributing longer to the pension system instead of consuming from it. In addition to this, a stronger flexibility with regard to the age periods of education, work life and retirement could also support a policy which lowers the risks of disadvantages in career development for parents. Given that employees would be able to stay ten years longer in the workforce today due to the general rise in life expectancy, entering a career path which leads a candidate to high-level positions could also start later in life, i.e. after having raised children to at least primary school age. The period after return to work is crucial for the further development of careers. This would allow more up-and-coming young talents to invest in both their careers and their children. It seems that with our current distribution of the life course, the window of opportunity to have a family and career is simply too short and opens at the wrong time.

Of course, for the time being, this is just a vision and more discussion is needed among researchers, policy makers and practitioners to find out whether and how our labour markets could be better prepared to improve career opportunities for talented young parents. There is no doubt that it is worth it.

 

About the author:

James W. Vaupel, Founding Director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock/Germany, Director of the Max-Planck Odense Center on the Biodemography of Ageing in Denmark, and Member of Population Europe’s Board of Trustees.

 

James W. Vaupel and Elke Loichinger (2006): Redistributing Work in Aging Europe. Science 312(5782): 1911-1913.