57 Elder Careers: On the Length of Life

To close out volume one of his essays, Montaigne returns to the question of mortality: what kind of lifespan should we expect? How long should we work? At what point in life should most of our great accomplishments be achieved?

Our understand of lifespan has undergone a radical evolution since Montaigne’s day. Then, as he notes, it was quite rare to die of old age. Infant mortality was high. Disease and infections that today might put you out of commission for a few days could take your life back then. The amazing advances in medical science – including vaccinations – have created an older culture with rapidly growing senior cohorts. Bear that in mind in reading Montaigne’s description of life spans in his day:

Dying of old age is a rare death, unique and out of the normal order and therefore less natural than the others. It is the last, the uttermost way of dying; the farther it is from us, the less we can hope to reach it; it is indeed the limit beyond which we shall not go and which has been prescribed by Nature’s law as never to be crossed: but it is a very rare individual law of hers which makes us last out till then.

These changes are piling up fast and are having massive political and economic implications. The great bulge in human population between now and 2050 isn’t so much the result of expanding birthrates – in most of the industrial world, birthrates are stable or even falling. Rather, the surge is due to longer lives. And if the industrial world continues to retire men and women from the workforce in their 60s, the world is going to have to create massive new wealth to afford it.

Montaigne anticipates this argument to a degree by suggesting that we wait far too long to allow young people to have a meaningful role in society:

I reckon that our souls are free from their bonds at the age of twenty, as they ought to be, and that by then they show promise of all they are capable of. No soul having failed by then to give a quite evident pledge of her power ever gave proof of it afterwards. By then – or never at all – natural qualities and capacities reveal whatever beauty or vigour they possess.

Even more, Montaigne argues that most people accomplish their greatest acts before they reach 30:

Of all the fair deeds of men in ancient times and in our own which have come to my knowledge, of whatever kind they may be, I think it would take me longer to enumerate those which were made manifest before the age of thirty than after.

On a personal level, I’m in complete agreement with him. By the time I had turned 30, I had served as the chief speechwriter for a prominent U.S. governor and press secretary of his U.S. Senate campaign, then landed a job as Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s speechwriter. While my paychecks have grown since then, my professional influence and autonomy – and cultural impact – clearly peaked at a young age.

Maybe my story is unusual, but I do believe it’s illustrative – Americans tend to cash in on their early successes later in life with jobs that do not demand as much pure creativity. Which leads me to my own cultural theory – we send kids to college before it can do them any good. I think our culture would be much better off sending high school graduates into the workplace as apprentices and let them advance in their careers until they reach a natural break.

At this point – sometime between the age of 25 and 35 – allow them to go to college and finance much of it themselves. A break from education will make them value it more and will disconnect college from career-building skills, which I believe it’s too firmly focused on right now.

At the other end of life, perhaps we need to have a second period of education to prepare older workers for a new career that will go on well past the age of 65. Here’s what Montaigne said about the prospect of expanded work lives:

Sending men into inactivity before fifty-five or sixty does not seem very right to me. I would counsel extending our vocations and employments as far as we could in the public interest; the error is on the other side, I find: that of not putting us to work soon enough. The man who had power to decide everything in the whole world at nineteen wanted a man to be thirty before he could decide where to place a gutter!

Bear in mind that Montaigne also believed in withdrawing from society – going to that room in the tower to write – rather than remaining out in the business world until death. Maybe that’s the kind of career we need to make common for those in the later years of work life, consulting, reflective professions built more on wisdom and experience than raw hustle.

As a 45-year old man contemplating another career change, the Montaigne vision of mature careerhood has great appeal to me. Given that our society may soon reach a point where we cannot afford Social Security at 65 – and few will be receiving traditional pensions – we need to think about ways to reshape the workforce to fit the new demographic reality.

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