Through it all, staying employed will mean staying adaptable and unique. “The individual needs to rethink employment,” says Lynn. “It’s not up to the boss to figure out your career development.” But as adults, are we really still capable of substantial adaptive learning? Yes, more so than we might think. “The big surprise out of neuroscience over the last 10 years is that the brain has remarkable plasticity,” says Kurt Fischer, director of the Mind, Brain, and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Even when we’re 40, 50, 60, the brain adapts to the context that it’s in and does so throughout our lives.” Midlife brains do begin to lose some capacities—memory, for starters—but they are also more stable; the neural connections between the limbic system, which controls emotions, and the prefrontal cortex, which has to do with planning, become stronger. Decision making improves. The adult brain can take into account more-complex factors. This was once known as wisdom, and scientists now believe there’s a neurological basis for it.
Midcareer workers can take comfort from knowing that their situation is better than it feels. Experienced workers are relatively secure in their jobs: In November 2012 the unemployment rate for people 45 to 54 was 6 percent—well below the average of 7.7—while for workers 20 to 24, it was 12.7 percent. It’s true, though, that younger people find new jobs more quickly. “One of the things they’re able to do is think about how their skills relate to lots of jobs,” says Betsey Stevenson, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan. For older workers—who search longer for work and who can face significant barriers to re-entry, including age discrimination—it’s important to push to recognize new areas where they can apply their expertise.
I’ve seen much of that in my profession: Many colleagues who took buyouts have successfully transitioned into high-level writing and analytical jobs at research firms and think tanks. They are editing speeches and working in public relations. Or they’ve stayed in journalism but left print in favor of digital media. I’ve taken leaves to write books. Like many of my colleagues, I’ve done some blogging and launched myself on Facebook and Twitter. Journalists I know have signed up for continuing-education social media courses and learned from younger staff members. In short: It hasn’t been easy, but we’ve adapted.
And there are subtle reasons that working women may be well suited to this kind of self-reinvention. Unlike men, women don’t have much cause to be nostalgic about the workplace of the past. We never enjoyed a rosy era of high salaries, rapid corporate advancement, stable institutional belonging and easy job seeking. Economists have found that people who experienced abundance can become discouraged when faced with scarcity; people accustomed to doing without are less easily daunted. “Older males are walking around with a lot of psychological scars,” says Dorrer. “They no longer enjoy the perks of malehood in the labor market. Women, who never had this to begin with, arrive without these shackles from the past, and they may find it easier to adapt.” Under stress, people step up their game, and we have been nothing if not stressed. “If they’re motivated to surmount a challenge,” says neuroscientist Lise Eliot, “people can do amazing things.”
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