Rewiring Our Brains: Thinking Differently About How We Approach the Gig Economy

February 28, 2017 Mike Lewis



I am a big movie buff.  It’s impossible not to be. I have two sons in the entertainment industry in Hollywood, and movies are a big topic of conversation in my family. So, as you can imagine, this time of year is a big deal for us. We love to celebrate the Academy Awards. It’s as big as the Super Bowl, World Cup, or World Series.

Over the past few weeks, I have been trying to catch up on all the Best Picture nominees. I highly recommend this; the batch of movies nominated this year are fantastic, including Arrival.  I’m not going to spoil anything here, but there is one concept floated in the movie that I found truly compelling: the possibility that completely immersing ourselves in a second language allows us to rewire our brain. This thought really captured my imagination, and I began to research it. Low and behold, there are plenty of studies that support that learning another language does allow us to rewire our brains. So, what does this have to do with how experienced business professionals, as well as organizations, approach career progression, employment, and talent utilization in light of the seismic shifts taking place in today’s workforce? To thrive in the Gig Economy, we need to rewire our brains by learning a new language of workforce participation and employee engagement.


A new language visibly impacts the brain. A study at the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy found that learning a language has a visible effect on the brain. In fact, the brain actually grew in size, and the parts that developed were the hippocampus, a deep-lying brain structure that’s involved in learning new material and spatial navigation, and three areas in the cerebral cortex. As I read more, I found that people who are fluent in more than one language have better memories, are more cognitively creative, and are more mentally flexible than monolinguals. In addition, a Canadian study identified the possibility that Alzheimer’s disease and the onset of dementia are diagnosed later for bilinguals than for monolinguals. Yet another study found stroke survivors are more likely to recover all their functions if they are bilingual.

So, knowing two languages makes our brain bigger and more likely to fight off dementia and recover from a stroke. Good enough reasons alone for me to run out and buy Babel or Rosetta Stone! But what I learned next is what I think is critical for those of us facing the Gig Economy. When you first study a new language, you consciously translate back and forth in your mind between your native language and the new one. With continued study and immersion, the need for internal translation diminishes, and you begin thinking in the new language. This is when true fluency occurs. Studies show thinking in a new language can also change your perception and how you view the world.

So why is this so important to those of us working in and looking for employees in the Gig Economy, as well as those of us over 50? The Gig Economy is forcing all of us to rethink the way we approach work. And the significant growth of the percentage of the labor force that falls between the ages of 55 to 76 is going to force us to rethink the way we define and approach “retirement.”

Thinking in the Gig Economy language for employees over the age of 50. First, we need to think like Millennials. Millennials don’t expect to stay at the same company for their entire career. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that, on average, people will have 11 jobs before the age of 50…not because they can’t keep a job, but because each job represents an opportunity to create additional personal value that can be reapplied in the workforce. We need to become comfortable with short-term and/or project-based assignments (“gigs”), not just full-time or continuous employment. In addition, we need to be more open and much more collaborative. A Millennial’s brain is all about opensource thinking. Everything they do is open and it makes them far more collaborative than Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers. They collaborate openly with no expectation of immediate return or reward but confident in their knowledge that at some point there will be a good result. In my experience, GenXers and Baby Boomers too often want to get something in exchange for our contribution. We aren’t opensource…we are very proprietary. This approach is outdated and certainly not conducive to the collaboration that is required to find gigs. It requires many of us to rewire our brain and think like a Millennial.

Thinking in the Gig Economy language for employers. Bureau of Labor Statistics data clearly shows that the fastest growing sector in the labor market is people over age 55. Experienced workers are leaving the traditional, full-time workforce steadily, often due to reaching an arbitrary mandatory retirement age or organizational restructurings that encourage “early retirement.” The youngest boomers turn 53 this year, and the average retirement age is 62. With a shortage of 40 million educationally qualified technicians and scientists forecast by 2020 and 50% of Science and Engineering workers eligible for retirement over the next 3 years, companies are facing a critical talent vacuum. Employers can bridge this gap by tapping into the wisdom and experience of their knowledge workers both before they exit the company and after they depart. Establish a knowledge management system, create mentoring opportunities between Boomer alumni and current Millennial employees, and establish formal alumni return programs that allow alumni to work on a flexible basis. They get to focus on what they do best and enjoy most while you get to leverage their expertise. And don’t forget to reach out to non-alumni Boomers who can help you explore new opportunities as your business expands into new areas.

I have written before that the retirement age is an outdated concept. It was established in Germany back in the 1880’s and set at the age of 70 because people weren’t expected to survive much longer than that, if they reached that age at all. Quite frankly, I don’t understand our societal rush to get to retirement. In my opinion, it is an arbitrary number that has a negative impact on our economy and society, particularly now, as nearly every company is experiencing a significant loss in knowledge assets due to retirement. What’s the rush? And why is it all or nothing…40+ hours a week for 50 weeks a year, or not at all? I think we have programmed ourselves to believe that we cannot sustain the same level of output once we hit 55, when in fact we have the most wisdom and experience to offer. It makes no sense. We must rewire our brains to not focus on arbitrary numbers set almost 140 years ago, or adhere to traditional work schedules and compensation models. I hesitate to even throw out numbers that represent when we should think about retirement. In fact, why retire at all? Just stay connected and work when, where, and how you want. The data shows we need the knowledge in the workforce and it adds to our vitality as human beings.

I just learned today that the Spanish word for retirement is "jubilación." What a great word! It sounds so much better than retirement and is what life should be for those of us over age 50 in the Gig Economy...a jubilant time where we celebrate our knowledge and experience and approach life with openness and anticipation. It’s as simple as rewiring our brains by learning the new language of the Gig Economy.

Be sure to read more here about competitive talent market utilization. Need help getting started? Contact me and let’s discuss how YourEncore can help you leverage the new workforce, either as an Expert or as a Client.

About Mike Lewis: Mike is Chief Sales & Marketing Officer for YourEncore. He is passionate about connecting Life Science and Consumer Goods Clients with YourEncore Experts, bringing them the rich experience and technical know-how they need to address their business challenges via flexible resourcing and consulting engagements. He is an innovative sales and marketing leader who has successfully introduced new selling and marketing models that have transformed companies in the process. He is a thought leader in social selling and account based marketing and has leveraged both to grow company revenues and reputation.


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