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How to bounce back from COVID-19 career setbacks

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There is no refuting that many of us in the 50+ cohort are facing career and financial challenges spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s pushed us to explore what’s next in our working lives. And that’s why I want to share with you some powerful insights from author Mark S. Walton in his new book Crucial Creativity: Never Let a Crisis Crash Your Business or Career. He shows us that we’re all creative and can find a positive path out of nearly any setback.

This is something I’ve focused on in my work. And Mark and I have bonded over this confident, pro-active approach to coping with change.

I first met Mark four years ago when I joined together with a team of nationally acclaimed experts to be a part of the launch of Second Half Institute — a university curriculum focused on mastering midlife and beyond.

Our program kicked off at the University of California-Riverside on its campus near Palm Springs. And the faculty included Marci Alboher, Vice President of Encore.org, and author of The Encore Career Handbook, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, author of Life Reimagined: The Science, Art and Opportunity of Midlife, and Mark Miller, columnist for Reuters, Morningstar, the New York Times, and publisher of RetirementRevised.com.

Mark Walton was leader of the pack. He is chairman of the Center for Leadership Communication, an executive management and career consulting firm whose clients include leaders, managers and professionals at many of the world’s leading organizations, including Toyota Motor Corp., GlaxoSmithKline, Bank of America, NASA and the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. He’s also a Peabody award-winning journalist who was a CNN senior correspondent and anchor earlier in his career.

I recently spoke with Mark about his research, new book and his views on the changing workplace for workers over 50. The highlights of our conversation are below and have been edited and condensed.

Overall, what’s the economic impact been on people in the 50+ age category in terms of work and jobs?

It’s not a pretty picture, Kerry. In a typical economic downturn, older workers are more likely to hang onto their jobs than younger workers, who have less experience and tenure. But that hasn’t been the case this time around. In fact, during the early months of the pandemic, people over 55 were nearly 20% more likely to become unemployed than younger people. And that doesn’t even take into account the pandemic’s economic toll on small-business owners over age 50 who’ve been forced to scale back or shut their doors. Taken together, people in midlife and beyond who’ve had their businesses, careers or retirements impacted or derailed undoubtedly number in the millions.

Based on the research you’ve done for your book, what’s the best approach to take, or mind-set to have, if you’re someone in that 50+ age group whose career or business has been hard hit by a crisis like the pandemic?

I’ve found is that the people and businesses that have thrived in the wake of a major crisis are those who’ve been proactively creative. By that I mean that they’ve purposefully and strategically invented new and different jobs or careers for themselves, or products and services that are particularly well suited to the postcrisis economy.

Why is this? Because life after a crisis is rarely, if ever, the same as it was before. A crisis like this pandemic, and the postcrisis period that follows it, are moments in time when consumer needs, wants and tastes are dramatically in flux, and markets are rapidly evolving in an attempt to keep up. Like the famous Bob Dylan song says, ‘the times, they are a changing.’

Since periods like this can be frightening, it’s understandable that some of us tend to duck and cover. We wait things out in the hope that we’ll get hired back into the same kind of job we previously had, or we try to run our businesses in the same way we did before the crisis struck. But that’s often a losing strategy because the ‘new normal’ after a crisis will be different from the way things used to be.

So what the savviest career professionals and businesspeople do when crisis strikes is get moving, even if they’re not immediately clear about their ultimate direction. They start early to create a future for themselves rather than react to whatever tomorrow might bring. They get on the phone, talk to people, read the data, try to gauge where things are headed, search for new ideas and opportunities, and use their skills and capabilities to ride the waves of change rather than get crushed by them. They approach a crisis as an opportunity to create something new and plant the seeds of their next success.

But what if you don’t consider yourself ‘the creative type?’ How do you become creative, or ramp up your creativity in a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic?   

The biggest misconception that people have is that being creative is something unique to certain kinds of individuals or businesses. That’s simply a myth, a notion that too many of us have bought into at some point in our lives. I’ve spent a lot of time studying highly creative people in many fields, and they basically tell you the same thing, which is that creativity — whether in the arts, sciences, business or any endeavor — is not a personal attribute, but rather the result of a deliberate strategy, a series of actions, that any of us can learn and put to work. In my writing, I call this strategy “The Three Acts of Crucial Creativity.”

The first act, which we’ve already touched on a bit, is Observation—studying the evolving market for ideas, information and opportunities. Act two is what Walt Disney called “Imagineering,” which essentially means generating mental blueprints for a new job, products or services that, based on your observations, will likely be successful in the evolving marketplace. The third act is Actualization, which involves applying your personal skills or business capabilities to make what you’ve blueprinted real, to bring what you’ve imagined to market.

In your writing, have you uncovered any particular tips or methods that could be especially useful to people in midlife or beyond, including for people who may need or want to generate income in retirement?

Absolutely. Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned in studying people over age 50 is that we all have skills and abilities that we used earlier in life but have forgotten about, or may never have used but harbor within us, which can be put to work with surprisingly positive results. In fact, the leading neuroscientist in this area, Michael Merzenich at the University of California, who pioneered the phenomenon called brain plasticity, is a proponent of people over 50 uncovering their hidden skills and abilities by trying out new careers or retirement work that intrinsically interests or fascinates them. I’ve written about people who’ve done this, and interviewed Dr. Merzenich for my book. But the bottom line is this: no matter your age, never underestimate the possibility that you can start a new career or business, or earn extra retirement income, by tapping into personal capabilities that you may not be aware of or have forgotten that you possess.

How do the business leaders you’ve spoken with seem to be viewing the post-pandemic period?

Many of them believe that it’s not a matter of whether there will be a post-pandemic economic boom, but when it will start and how big it will be. Keep in mind that the worst crises are often followed by boom times. The period after World War II was one of the best on record both for productivity and economic growth. And it’s sometimes forgotten that a century ago, between 1917 and 1920, the U.S. experienced five major back-to-back crises—World War I, two recessions, the Spanish flu epidemic, and a period of violent domestic unrest. Yet by 1923, the ‘Roaring ’20s’ were under way, a huge economic boom that ignited when a wave of new American technology and creativity met with pent-up consumer demand.

There’s no way to know, of course, whether we’re headed for an era like that one—something that might be known as the ‘Roaring 2020s.’ But it’s entirely possible, which makes it all that more crucial that we rev up our own creativity, not just to survive the rest of the pandemic, but to capitalize on what may come next.  

Kerry Hannon is a leading expert and strategist on work and jobs, entrepreneurship, personal finance and retirement. Kerry is the author of more than a dozen books, including Great Pajama Jobs: Your Complete Guide to Working From HomeNever Too Old To Get Rich: The Entrepreneurs Guide To Starting a Business Mid-Life, Great Jobs for Everyone 50+, and Money Confidence. Her on Twitter @kerryhannon.

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