Boomer Careers: How to Survive the Next 20 Years 


In 2035, the youngest Boomers will be 71. The oldest among us will be 89. What is it going to be like to look back from that vantage point? Hopefully, most of us will have figured out how to keep working as long as possible – certainly to 70, when the maximum Social Security benefits kick in, but probably longer. It won’t be in the 9 to 5 corporate jobs most of us were weaned on in our careers. I expect it will be more entrepreneurial, more free-lance, and more service-oriented. But in any event, there are going to be some key adjustments we’re going to have to make in order to successfully navigate the continually changing global economy.

What can we expect, and what behaviors do we need to adopt if we are going to make it though the next 20 years? Or are we already well-positioned to succeed?

First, we need recognize the global forces affecting how companies will be doing business. According to Richard Dobbs, James Manyika and Jonathan Woetzel, authors of No Ordinary Disruption: The Four Global Forces Breaking All the Trends, there are four key factors to track:

Urbanization. The world is consolidating into more and more cities, and new urban centers are emerging, largely in Asia, where more and more commerce will originate. Boomers should be prepared to relocate to locations globally where their experience and savvy will be valued.

More Tech Changes. Nothing is slowing down: processors, data, devices, apps. Boomers need to wipe out any remaining reservations or squeamishness about technology. Our generation founded the tech revolution. We all need to step up to the plate and be as conversant and savvy about tech as GenX and Millennials.

The World is Getting Older. Birth rates are declining globally, especially in developed countries, and the proportion of older people is growing, not just in the U.S. This is an opportunity for Boomers to go where we are not expected, and fulfill roles that are key to global success. Not only do we want to keep working, the world is going to need us to keep working.

Connectivity. As connected as we are now, it’s all going to increase. The flows of people, trade and data across borders, regions and continents will increase opportunities and challenges. Individuals, corporations and governments will need to adapt to this increased pace of change – as will Boomers.

This accelerated world will need to be met by a more effective way to work. While it is true that Boomers have significant life and career experience, these qualities will only get us so far in the 21st century. Successful leaders are going to need to move beyond job criteria based on experience, skills and competence to what executive recruiter Claudio Fernandez-Araoz characterizes as “Potential.”

At first glance, this sounds counter-intuitive. How can we make hiring decisions or trust people based not on what they’ve done to date, but on what we believe they’re going to be capable of in the future? Yet when we look at the pace of change, embodied in the four global changes listed above, it is clear that we are not going to be able to solve for unknown and unanticipated problems with old skill sets and outdated processes. As Einstein said, a problem cannot be solved at the same level of thinking that created it.

Fernandez-Araoz, writing in the Harvard Business Review, sets up his argument by pointing out that our age is characterized by an acronym that first arose in the military: VUCA, which stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous, a scary combination of factors. To address the challenges of a VUCA world, we must find and develop leaders who possess expansive skills that let them adapt to unprecedented situations.

Individuals with Potential share five qualities:

Motivation to serve. They are thinking longterm about their role and their mission. Their goal is to make their team, their project and their company successful, even if it means forgoing their own success. They are not merely selfless or do-gooders. They are strategic players who are not tied down to any one way of doing things, and always consider the sum of all the moving parts involved in complex decisions.

Curiosity. They are lifelong learners who seek out new ideas, new people and new methods.

Insight. They look for the essence underlying each piece of a puzzle, and are able to synthesize new possibilities out of disparate elements.

Engagement. They welcome the debate and interaction necessary to discover solutions, and are effective and persuasive communicators.

Determination. They don’t give up on their vision, and are persistent and resourceful in figuring out how to see their mission through to completion.

I’d like to think that Boomers are the perfect candidates for this new world, where Potential reigns and uncertainty awaits. We have, after all, put many of our life’s milestons behind us. We have raised families, survived economic reversals, and witnessed massive changes. Unlike younger generations, we are unfettered by attachments to families we have already raised, slavish social fads (we’ve seen too many of them), economic ups and downs (ditto). We are the troubleshooters able to bring new ideas and vitality into new situations.

It may be ironic that some of the oldest workers on the planet may wind up as the ones best suited to address these challenges. I believe we share the three important personal traits that drive people with Potential: Autonomy (our ability to be responsible for ourselves and effectively inspire that responsibility in others), Mastery (our striving to do our best, and to deliver on the strong work ethic our generation is known for), and Purpose (our emerging quest for meaning and the delivery of a legacy that we can be proud of).

Why shouldn’t the most complex people on the planet be on the front lines of solving tomorrow’s problems?

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John Tarnoff is a career transition coach, speaker and best-selling author who helps late-career professionals transition to meaningful second-act careers beyond traditional retirement.

Following a successful career as a Hollywood film executive and tech entrepreneur, he reinvented his own career at 50, earning a master’s degree in Spiritual Psychology to focus on professional development and training.

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