Preparing the older brain for workforce re-entry

By Dr Michael Merzenich*
Tuesday, 25 May, 2021

Preparing the older brain for workforce re-entry

As we begin to emerge globally from economic downturn caused by COVID-19, it looks as though many older workers displaced by the pandemic may soon be heading back to work, which raises the question of how to prepare for workplace re-entry.

While older workers are likely to be more experienced and therefore more costly, their seniority offered more protection in past downturns. This time, older workers may have been perceived as less tech savvy and less able to adapt to working remotely — though that is often inaccurate, since these are workers with decades of good work habits.

Adjusting mindset and skill set

For those that have invested decades into their careers, losing a job can be emotionally and financially devastating, particularly if a person’s skill set does not transfer to many other job opportunities.

The good news is that our brains are constructed to change and learn new skills. Brain plasticity — the ability of the brain to change chemically, structurally and functionally throughout life — is our greatest human asset. The brain thrives on challenges that require new skill acquisition and new learning. It is enlivened by them. At any age, every brain is capable of very substantial change, in an improving and strengthening direction.

Taking on brain fog

Older workers who have had COVID-19 may experience residual cognitive complaints, often characterised as ‘brain fog’. These varied symptoms are similar to ‘chemobrain’ associated with cancer, ‘cardiobrain’ associated with heart failure, and the persistent brain fog that sometimes follows concussive or blast injury. Recent studies of computerised brain training have shown significant results in improving these conditions.

Five tips for older workers re-entering the workforce

  1. Put some serious thought into how you want to spend the rest of your life, including your next job. While you need to be realistic about what’s possible, always remember how life-affirming it can be to really enjoy your days at work. If that means redefining yourself to some extent, get to work on it. Your brain is plastic. You can develop and elaborate the skills and abilities that prepare you for a more interesting and rewarding next step.
  2. Network with friends and former work colleagues. Connect with individuals who can help you find what you’re looking for and help you redefine yourself on the path to a new job and a happier life. Explore the online tools and apps that jobseekers use in 2021. Learning new things outside your comfort zone is good for your brain and for you.
  3. You have the power to grow to be substantially more effective and strongly connected. Try to reconnect with the world in a mindful way. That includes adopting a life of continuous new learning and giving your brain more exercise, from this day forward. Brains are like bodies: without exercise they get sluggish; with exercise, they are capable of remarkable functional restoration.
  4. During your job hiatus, find things to do that you enjoy, or that you believe are important to contribute to the world. Many later-life jobs are outgrowths of such high-value, and often life-changing, experiences. Imagine a future life in which you actually love to go to work, every single day. What would that job look like?
  5. Take advantage of advances in brain science to mentally prepare. Our global team has developed, tested, refined and validated (in 100+ studies) brain exercises in an app called BrainHQ. The exercises focus on improving your speed and accuracy in processing both visual and auditory information, which is the foundation for higher cognitive function. Also, better speed in accuracy is one way to define greater productivity.

*Dr Michael Merzenich is a renowned neuroscientist, who is a Kavli Laureate in Neuroscience. He is often credited with discovering lifelong brain plasticity, being the first to harness plasticity for human benefit (in his co-invention of the cochlear implant, which has restored hearing to hundreds of thousands of people), and developing the new field of brain exercises based on brain plasticity. Some may recognise him from his eight specials on brain health on public television in the United States or from the Redesign My Brain series on ABC in Australia. Dr Merzenich’s book ‘Soft-Wired’ provides an extended explanation about how the brain’s plasticity enables lifelong personal growth.

Top image credit: ©

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