Dealing with uncertainty
Spring is here along with vaccines, and we are starting to lower our masks and re-enter the world. But even with these reasons for hope, we will be facing heightened uncertainty for the foreseeable future. The future is always uncertain, of course, but even the limited stability we knew 14 months ago has been upset and is likely to remain unsteady as we try to build a new meaning for “normal.” Most of us have learned to cope with this uncertainty over the past year; some did better than others. What people may not realize is that older people have been the best at coping.
Studies conducted before and during the pandemic have consistently found that older age (age 50 and up) is associated with better emotional well-being. In discussing these findings, Dr. Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, has noted that “despite ‘grave risks to physical health, uncertainties about contagion and restricted social contacts,’ older adults had less frequent and less intense periods of anxiety, anger, stress, boredom and other negative emotions than younger people.” As we get older, we understand and manage our emotions better, even in times of prolonged stress. We have been through other periods of stress and endured life’s tribulations, and we know that we will eventually come out of this pandemic and move on. We understand that things will be different, and not only that we will find ways to adapt, but also that the changes may be for the better. We appreciate life’s complexities and our emotional reactions reflect that. We are more accustomed to and accepting of sadness and loss, so we have more perspective about the bad times at the same time we are grateful for and savor the good things in our lives.
In contrast, younger adults, especially those in their 20s and 30s, reported much higher levels of depression, anxiety and stress, plus low levels of happiness, satisfaction and wellbeing. Many factors contribute to these outcomes. In terms of work, young people are struggling to discover their capabilities, learn who and what they will become, and establish themselves in a career. Disruptions at work, or loss of a job, cost them more psychologically, if not financially, than people who have enjoyed careers, formed professional identities, and understand the vagaries and possibilities of the work world. Plus, members of this age group often have children and/or parents to care for, which adds to and intensifies these other stresses.
Age- and experience-based wisdom gives strength to those who are older. When shared, it can also bring comfort to those who are younger. If you have insights and lessons about dealing with uncertainty, you can profoundly help those who are younger and may not have the benefit of your hindsight and wisdom. Why not share it with them?
Think about someone you supervise or work with who might benefit from the chance to talk with you about their concerns for the future. If you are a mentor, your mentee might be a good person to start with. If they indicate to you, or you sense, that they are struggling, be responsive and accessible. Don’t assume they want to have this discussion or receive your advice. Instead, ask whether they have concerns they would like to talk over with you and let them know you want to be supportive if they do.
You could also reach out to another senior colleague. Just because older adults cope better in general doesn’t mean that all older people are managing well. People of all ages are disoriented by prolonged uncertainty. Many of your peers will welcome a chance to discuss concerns about the future.
One of the life lessons I often share with clients who are struggling with uncertainty is the need to embrace the discomfort they feel. High achievers want to know the rules, the path, the possibilities. As professionals, we are accustomed to being experts sought out by others because we know the answers. In a world filled with uncertainty and ambiguity, it’s necessary to get comfortable with the discomfort of not knowing. One way to do this is by shifting your focus from knowing to learning. Seeking and being open to new ways of thinking and acting enables you to turn what you don’t know into an asset. I have written before about the many benefits of curiosity, including increased learning, creativity and resilience.
You undoubtedly have some life lessons and insights of your own that you can offer someone. Or perhaps you have concerns about the future that you would like to talk through with someone else. One of the benefits of talking about these things with others is that these conversations usually present some new perspectives or valuable lessons you didn’t expect. Now is a vital time for all of us to offer each other guidance and support for coping with a brightening but still uncertain future.
If I can help you or your firm as an adviser, presenter or coach, please get in touch with me.
I have two new resources about retirement that I hope you will find helpful. One is a podcast; the other an article about working after you retire.
- Podcast: There are few resources available for men who are retired or contemplating retirement. Since women started entering and navigating the workforce, we have joined or started groups that provide mutual support and guidance. Today, women who are leaving successful careers for retirement or new adventures are doing the same. But successful men tend to go it alone. Michael F. Kay is trying to change that solitariness through Chapter X, a supportive online community for men. Michael and I discussed my book, Retirement by Design, as well as various retirement issues, including those that affect men in particular, in one of his recent podcasts. You can listen to that podcast here.
- Article: The current issue (April/May 2021) of Experience magazine features my article, “Retirement Is No Time to Stop Working.” It discusses the ongoing value of work in your life, whether for pay or not, and the various ways you can include some sort of work in your retirement schedule. Click here to download the article or read it online here.
Report about Law Practice and the Pandemic
For those readers in the legal profession, the ABA just issued an important report on “Practicing Law in the Pandemic and Moving Forward.” Based on data collected in a survey of over 4,200 lawyers, the study found that the pandemic has had a significant impact in many arenas of law practice. It has also greatly exacerbated the disproportionate burdens and pressures that women lawyers, particularly those with young children, and lawyers of color were already facing. In addition to discussing impacts of the pandemic, the report recommends a set of best practices to assist legal employers and individual lawyers as we emerge from the pandemic. You can read the full report here.