What We Might Learn from the Global Workplace

Why are American career, HR and workplace practices seemingly so far behind our peer countries around the globe? And are there models elsewhere to adapt

Those are questions I’ve been asking myself quite a bit lately. I chair an initiative that fosters public conversation and knowledge about the implications of longer lives. I also host a podcast, “Century Lives,” from the Stanford Center on Longevity.  In both cases, we’ve been looking at the implications of greater longevity on longer work life and the likelihood of 50 or even 60-year careers as the norm. If we’re going to work that long, those careers will need to be more productive, balanced and meaningful to sustain.

This spring, as part of our “Century Lives” podcast, we’re telling a story of the state of work in this country and have compared it to work in several innovative countries. We found that while all these countries suffered through the pandemic, none experienced the workplace upheavals that occurred and continue in the United States. Here are a few of my takeaways about what’s working elsewhere and how these concepts might apply to American workers and HR professionals:

  • The drive to flexible work predates the pandemic. In Finland, flexibility has been part of the work culture (and work laws) for a generation. Remote work and flexible hours are long-established practices in the workplace. As American employers grapple with how to balance the broad desire for remote work with the desire to restore office culture, they should study how Finnish companies and workers have flourished in a flexible work environment.
  • Older workers are supported and retained. More than 2 million older workers chose early retirement during the Great Resignation, a huge brain drain at a time of tight labor markets; it’s a figure that’ll grow substantially as the last of the Baby Boomers near traditional retirement age. “Super-aged” societies like Germany and Singapore have addressed the challenges of attracting and retaining older workforce in substantial ways, including rethinking retirement policies and work processes.  American companies will need to emulate these practices in a time of tight labor markets.
  • Other countries are just better at work/life balance.  John Maynard Keynes once famously predicted that by now, workers would have traded in productivity gains for much shorter work weeks.  In fact, in the US, it has gone the other way, as hours worked have crept up over the last half-century.

For most American workers, the extra work has been rewarded with greater precarity and declining job tenure.  It’s no wonder that millions quit, retired, or sought new work during the Great Resignation. Iceland is in the process of junking the 40-hour work week in favor of shorter hours.

The US is famous for its inventiveness.  Longevity is presenting us with new opportunities to redesign healthcare, housing, the environment and many other central elements of life. The prospect of a half-century career also demands fresh thinking to ensure that those careers are meaningful, rewarding and attractive.

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