Future-Proof Work After 50

A conversation with author and future-of-work strategist, Heather McGowan

I am worried about the future. How long will my family and close friends be able to dodge Covid-19? What will happen in three months when the bank comes knocking for our mortgage payment? As a 50 year old, will I be able to fit into whatever paradigm shifts emerge as a result of the pandemic? What should I be doing now to secure my professional future? Never before has it been this challenging to stay in the present moment. 

Heather McGowan knows a thing or two about the future. In fact, she has built a career as a keynote speaker and advisor, deconstructing the future of work to audiences and organizations around the world. She believes success will be driven by individuals who prioritize continuous learning, critical thinking, social and emotional intelligence, and leaders who value and encourage these skills and attributes. McGowan’s think tank is called Work to Learn, because she believes the antiquated paradigm of educating ourselves to get a job will be replaced by the relentless pursuit of knowledge being central to our identities, enjoyment and achievements as professionals. 

McGowan and her co-author, Chris Shipley, synthesized the future of work in their book The Adaptation Advantage, which was released in April. McGowan recently sat down with us to discuss what mid-life professionals need to know about the future of work to better position ourselves, particularly in light of Covid-19. Spoiler alert: there are no quick fixes. 

As a child of the ‘70s, it was impressed upon me from an early age that I would go to college in order to get a job. My father worked for the same company for decades and was eager for me to follow in his footsteps: secure financial stability as soon as possible. In The Adaptation Advantage, you explore the importance of not defining ourselves by our work. What are steps professionals in mid-life can do to shift this decades-long mindset?

It is important to acknowledge that it is hard to let go of occupational identity especially when it was long ago cast. One way to start is to stop defining yourself by your function, company association, or role. Instead look at your tasks, skills, competencies and capacities and recast yourself in a manner that starts first with your purpose, passion, or curiosity and then link to your superpowers, or the things you are uniquely good at. From there consider either your current job or your current job aspiration as merely the application of your skills and knowledge today, in this moment in time, rather than your permanent or fixed identity. 

You refer in your work to the process of “unlearning,” and it sounds like letting go of our work identities is a step in the right direction. You expound the concept in The Adaptation Advantage, “The more we learn the less willing we are to question what we assume we know” and that we become close-minded to new information. Despite the enduring hardship many will face during the pandemic, it seems we have been presented with time and space to “unlearn.” How can we get started? 

The first step in unlearning is to approach a challenge and acknowledge all the things you do not know while testing and questioning the assumptions about what you may know. The study you refer to from the book found that not only are those with deep expertise often unwilling to check their assumptions, those labeled experts, even without experience, often ignore new information that calls their alleged expertise into question. 

As a society we have been socialized to be right and avoid vulnerability. Kathryn Schultz gave a fascinating TED talk a few years ago about the lengths we will go to in order to avoid being wrong. Bréne Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability is one of the most watched of all time because she discloses an important truth that vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity and courage. Both of these notions are underpinning unlearning—it is a process of letting go both of who you think you are but also how you have always done things. 

A concrete example comes close to home. My mother opened a clothing store in Venice Florida more than a decade ago. My mom is 76 and she knows quite a bit about retail and fashion. In attempting to navigate the pandemic, she is figuring out how to safely open her store, which requires, like many of us, letting go of all the ways she ran the store for more than a decade. She now has appointments for clients and she may just find that the private shopping model, at least in the short term, is more profitable, sustainable, and safe. 

Being resilient and having an agile mindset, like your mom is doing, seem like those “human skills” you value along with empathy. How can leaders encourage their employees to cultivate stronger social intelligence? Particularly during the pandemic?

Ask “How are you?” and mean it. We use that question as a conversation starter without ever really listening for a response. This is a moment to listen for the response. If you are a leader of a team right now and you have more than five direct reports, statistically speaking, chances are very good you have someone on your team suffering from a mental illness, diagnosed or undiagnosed. Pay attention and look out for the most psychologically vulnerable in your team or in your community. Do you know someone sheltering alone? Check in with them. Do you know someone caring for a parent or caring for an older parent and children at the same time? Check in with them. Social intelligence comes from self-awareness, self-management, and a whole lot of practice. 

Leaders right now have no choice but to establish psychological safety and trust if they want their teams to thrive right now. In the book we get into both of these concepts notably around how Google found psychological safety to be the number one determinant of successful teams—more important than experience, collective intelligence quotient, or any other factor. 

Millions of Americans have found themselves out of work due to the pandemic. What are some strategies middle-aged professionals can utilize to pivot for more meaningful employment? Particularly when they are battling financial worries? 

Financial stress is very real right now and very difficult. For some folks it may be prudent to remain in your industry, particularly if that is the easiest path to keep or regain employment. For others, and there are going to be many, many others for whom their prior job or even industry may not come back when the virus subsides. Studies in the US and UK have shown that job loss can take psychologically longer to recover from then the loss, even death, of a spouse or partner. We believe this is because, finances aside, it is the loss of one’s entire identity. This is something we can fix. 

If we stop using “What do you do for a living?” as our opening social greeting we could, collectively, move to define ourselves and connect with each other beyond the limitations of occupational identity. None of this is meant to minimize or diminish the very real financial stress of nearly 40 million jobs lost, for which there is not a good answer yet but preparing ourselves with the expectation of continuous learning and adaptation is a good first step. 

How do you feel about ageism in the workplace? How can middle-aged professionals best position themselves when looking for new opportunities? 

I believe we are in the process of moving past our short term thinking with regards to age and skills. Over the past few decades we have been digitizing our economy. In that process we lunged at youth for digital skills, which made sense. The median ages of workers at most of the born digital companies like Facebook and Google are all well below 35, while the median age in the workforce in the US is 42. Having said that, a couple of years ago, something interesting started happening—a marked shift from technical to human or behavioral skills. 

According to a report put out by IBM’s Institute for Business, from 2016 to 2018 the most in demand skills shifted from technical skills like basic computer skills and STEM to skills like agility, adaptability, and collaboration. Those human skills appreciate with age. Research by a team including, Dr. Laura Germine, found that while we once thought learning was the domain of youth due to fluid intelligence peaking at age 20 or before, we now find a series of cognitive peaks across the lifespan from reading emotions at age 48, deeply learning new information at age 50 and vocabulary peaking at age 67 and crystalized intelligence peaking at 60 or later. All these ages are averages but the trends are fascinating. 

With these shifts beyond lunging at youth and prioritizing digital only skills, I expect to see older workers, who have acquired more human or behaviors skills and competencies being increasingly valued. These shifts are long in the making. I would not advise those games of taking dates off your resume or Linked In profiles in effort to appear younger as I am not sure I would want to work for an organization that would hire me at 38 but not 48 because the organization, in my view, is focused in the wrong places. Having said all that, we all need to be highly adaptive, connected to a sense of purpose, willing to both learn and unlearn, and understand that learning and adaptation are our responsibilities as individuals. 

How are you generally feeling about the future of work as we know it? What is going to look different in light of the global pandemic? 

I am an optimist by nature and although we are in a world of hurt and I do not mean to minimize the loss of lives and livelihoods, I think two things are happening that are quite promising. First, the virus has acted as an accelerant towards our transformation to digital. Digital transformation of work and learning, whether it is digitized production processes, distributed workforces (remote work) or online learning, has never been about digital or tools, but rather human transformation. We are far more adaptable than we ever realized. Most individuals and organizations adapted to the global pandemic in under two weeks. 

Second, the only thing that I think is growing faster than the virus is our collective sense of empathy, our gratitude and our ability to collaborate. You can see it in our shift from referring to grocery store workers, transportation folks, and delivery workers not as low wage or low skill jobs but rather as “essential” and “front line” workers with remuneration that aligns with the importance of those roles to our society.  We have a lot yet to figure out, most notably how we get nearly 40 million people back to work, but those are two early signs that are very positive. Of those 40 million jobs lost or paused, some will not come back and those individuals will likely need to adapt to new roles and functions requiring new training, learning, and more adaptation. 

In the words of Sheryl Sandberg, choose to lean into the future instead of catastrophizing the what-ifs. There is plenty of space for us on the playing field.