When COVID-19 started to rip through the global workplace in 2020, it spawned job losses, shattered businesses, and triggered many older workers to leave the workforce — often earlier than planned.
It happened fast. It was breathtakingly brutal. And no one was prepared.
The result? Our lives and our workplaces were fundamentally changed in ways I detail in my new book “In Control at 50+: How to Succeed in the New World of Work.” While these trends were percolating prior to the pandemic, they sped up in the last two years and could provide a boost for all workers — but especially older ones.
“The pandemic has accelerated a movement to think of work and life in a more open-minded way,” Jeff Tidwell, CEO and cofounder of Next for Me, told me. “No matter the age, over the past year we rethought what work-life balance could be, including the time we spend with our families and communities, and even where we live.”
Here’s how work has changed.
Midlife entrepreneurship is increasingly popular and viable
Meet the new boss! It’s you. In the new world of work, entrepreneurship and self-employment will be a go-to solution for a growing number of adults over 50 who have either a burning desire to be their own boss or yearn to take control of their destiny.
The Kauffman Foundation, which studies entrepreneurship, saw a steep uptick in startup activity since 2020, with most of these new entrepreneurs 45 and older. Older entrepreneurs typically have more capital, knowledge, and experience than younger entrepreneurs and, as a result, a higher rate of success than their younger counterparts, according to a study by MIT researchers.
Technology has made it possible to build a business without a brick-and-mortar footprint and large startup costs. It also makes it seamless to hire a virtual helper on a contract or temporary basis rather than committing to the responsibility and ongoing overhead of full-time employees.
Dave Summers was one of those nouveau entrepreneurs in his early 60s. He was laid off as director of digital media productions at the American Management Association during the first rush of the pandemic in 2020. It was a shock, but he used it as an opportunity to start his own business as a digital media producer, coach, and animator creating podcasts, webcasts, and video blogs.
Summers and his wife also chose to relocate from Connecticut to Tennessee where the cost of living was lower. “My new work is all virtual, so I can live anywhere,” he told me. “Not only is it a cheaper place to live, but we also love hiking and the outdoors, and our new town is in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.”
Contract positions are swelling
The shift to contract or short-term projects can help you stay on the job or keep current work experience on your résumé while you hunt for a full-time position. It can also open the door at a potential employer that might lead to a full-time position. Employers are more apt to take a chance on an older worker in a contract position to avoid hiring a full-time employee with the full costs of benefits and what they might perceive as a high-salary expectation.
Contract positions can also benefit someone who wants to keep earning a paycheck but doesn’t necessarily want the “pedal to the metal” full-time commitment.
The downside, however, is if you depend on benefits that come from a full-time job, this trend can be disturbing. This is particularly an issue for workers in their 50s who rely greatly on an employer-provided retirement account and access to an employer-provided healthcare plan.
Older workers are making their dream career changes
Career changes later in life used to make people gasp and question if you know what you’re getting into, or if you have enough runway to really make a go of it in a new field. You were an outlier, a risk-taker. But the pandemic has infused people with a new desire, passion, and confidence to shift to work that has meaning. More and more, people are asking: If not now, when?
Hitting the books is a smart career move
Lifelong learning is no longer just a great way to stave off boredom and pass the time or learn something you might have always wanted to study but didn’t have time to. It’s now an essential tool for staying up-to-date on your job or landing a new position when you are over 50. The good news is that the pandemic spurred an uptick in offerings of top-drawer and affordable adult education online.
Remote work is no longer a perk
One silver lining of the pandemic was that it allowed more people to work remotely. Once a coveted perk for workers, remote work became the norm for white-collar employees. The genie had jumped out of the bottle.
Employers scrambled to make it work. Employees learned how to connect virtually, and they tried their best to balance work demands with their own set of personal responsibilities, which often included increased child- and eldercare duties.
Many workers, including me who juggled caring for my 91-year-old mom with dementia during the pandemic, grappled with the psychological impact of the pandemic on their working lives. The great news is that employers discovered their remote workers performed well, and output and efficiency were on target with expectations. No beats were missed. Plus, working remotely cut operating costs for many of them.
Employers noticed. Since the pandemic began, data scientists from Ladders have been tracking remote work data from North America’s largest 50,000 employers. Prior to the pandemic, only about 4% of high-paying jobs, those that pay $100,000 or more, were available remotely. By the end of 2021, that more than quadrupled to about 18%.
The accelerating change to permanent remote now means that over 20 million professional jobs will not be going back to the office after COVID, according to the researchers.
I’m a staunch proponent of working from a home office because it offers several paybacks that you might not have considered.
When you aren’t front and center in the office setting or standing alongside a colleague who is decades younger, you may be more likely to be judged by merit and the results of your work, rather than graying hair or a sagging neck. For workers with age-related mobility issues who may struggle with a commute, working from home can be a godsend.
While I envision remote work as mainstream for white-collar workers, a more likely model for many employers once the pandemic is contained will be a hybrid, more flexible workplace, with face time strategically clocked both in the office and at home.
“I don’t think remote work will completely replace work at the workplace, especially for older workers,” Richard Johnson, economist at the Urban Institute in Washington, DC, told me. “One of the attractions of work, especially for older people, is the social networks and camaraderie that it provides. Those are harder to maintain when most work is done remotely. But face-to-face interactions don’t need to happen every day.”
A movement to think deeply about how we spend our time
What ties this all together is that there has been a psychological reset among almost everyone I know, especially the 50+ workers I’ve interviewed in recent months, about how we want to spend our time.
People dear to us died from a virus that terrified us. That shook us. We were isolated, separated from friends and family for months on end. The experience has taught us lessons about what we value, what sustains us, and what it feels like to lose it.
In the context of our working lives and careers, all of this translates into understanding why working for a certain company, a nonprofit mission, or a boss should truly depend on being appreciated and respected for our effort and time. And we must return that feeling. It’s non negotiable.
Kerry is a Senior Columnist and Senior Reporter at Yahoo Money. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon