Starting in the early 1990s, in the wake of the breakup of the Soviet Union, military strategists began to track and assess a geopolitical world with vastly different and challenging conditions. They distilled these forces into four central qualities: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous, and used the acronym “VUCA” to identify them. Boomers can benefit from understanding what it means to live and work in a VUCA world, and use specific strategies and mindsets to counteract the effects of these forces on our lives and careers.
As we all know, boomers are under threat and are being squeezed from a number of directions. Just recently, the General Accounting Office, at the behest of Senator Bernie Sanders, released a report showing that about half of our generation has under-saved for retirement, and almost a third of us have no retirement savings whatsoever. Job prospects for older workers are dicey, ageism is rampant, and many of us are burdened by debt, and costs of caring for elderly parents.
Management and personal growth gurus advise us to be pro-active; to be bold in engaging with and dealing with our problems. But in this confusing world, where do we start, and what do we do?
Georgia State University professor Nate Bennett has deconstructed the VUCA paradigm into a framework which we can use to better understand our options. Here is how I interpret this framework to apply to the particular concerns of our generation, and strategies we can use to use them to our advantage:
Volatile. As we learned from the Great Recession, economics are unpredictable. Even though we might have known that the real estate market was heading for a cliff, we were not prepared for the follow-on effects of the downturn, and the loss of value to our homes and what savings we had. Corporate volatility has precipitated mass layoffs on a much more consistent basis, and boomers tend to be very hard-hit in those layoffs, as we are easy targets for early retirement “packages,” which are really just euphemisms for getting rid of older workers so that younger, cheaper workers can be hired.
Strategy. Assuming that this volatility will continue, it is more important than ever to stockpile resources and assets to tide us over. If we are fortunate enough to still have jobs, or a business that is generating income, we should adjust our lifestyles and budgets to save more. If we are looking for a job, or in the process of starting a business, we need to look for temp work or sales work on the side to keep as much cash flow going as possible. Now is not the time to deplete savings. We need to look at ways of running leaner lives and lifestyles, questioning the ways in which we have saved, invested, paid for services, run our households etc. Whatever we can do to be efficient little squirrels and save more nuts, the better prepared we will be for the ups and downs that are sure to continue.
Uncertain. We may be able to identify and define the challenges in front of us, whether they are related to career, family, health, or finances. We can grasp the basics of what our options are, but we don’t know what to prioritize or what external conditions could affect our decisions.
Strategy: Get more information. Do more research. Extend the means we use to gather and process information about the areas of uncertainty. Research and subscribe to more information websites, track and communicate with people who are experts in our areas of concern, participate in online or offline groups and communities that are compiling and disseminating information about these topics. In short, if information is power, become more powerfully informed.
Complex. The world seems to have broken down into a myriad of niches: products, services, ideas, solutions. It is hard to know where to turn when there is so much to choose from. Things are changing so frequently, and for so many interdependent reasons. At work, we are getting input from everywhere on how to do our jobs, what best practices we should use, what we are failing to realize, and how the latest theories are impacting our businesses.
Strategy: Double down on our values. Know ourselves better. Underneath the complexity all around us, if we know who we are, what we believe, and what is important to us, then we will have an easier time knowing how to take advantage of the right opportunities. We need to discard the options that don’t fit with who we are – without worrying whether we’ve made a mistake. The bard said it best: “To thine own self be true.”
Ambiguous. This may be the scariest condition of all. This is the classic situation where you “don’t know what you don’t know.” How do you deal with a situation that is hard to identify in the first place? For many of us in the Boomer generation, the future of our careers is tremendously ambiguous. We have some ideas of where we want to be, but it is hard to predict the future without sufficient information. Research is only going to get us so far. There is still a gap of unanswered questions, and maybe more questions behind those… We just don’t know.
Strategy: Risk and experiment. Figure out ways of trying out ideas so that you can learn what works and what doesn’t. Be smart about taking reasonable risks. For example, rather than start an entirely new online retail business, try selling products on existing marketplaces, like Etsy, to see if there is a market for your product. If you are still employed, start a side business, or a succession of side businesses until you find the one that works. Be your own incubator! Meet, communicate and collaborate with others to learn more and even to partner up (spreading the risk). Know when to quit, or when to pivot to a better idea, or a better plan. In short, create more clarity by gaining more experience and doing things that pull you out of your comfort zone.
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous quote applies today more than ever: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”We may feel overwhelmed by this uncertain world, and by our current conditions, but using a VUCA approach, we may be able to gain greater clarity on what we could and should be doing. Having a plan is at least 50% of the way towards arriving at your solution.