Later Life Is Ripe for Reinvention, Nonprofit Leader Asserts in New Book

Resource type: News

The Chronicle of Philanthropy |

Marc Freedman has emerged over the past decade as the nonprofit world’s most prominent crusader for a movement to reinvent retirement. In his new book, Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life, Mr. Freedman goes a step further: He envisions a world in which people reinvent their entire careers. Suppose instead of planning to retire in their 50s or 60s, he asks, people planned for their midlife “encore careers” – a new phase of work in which they devoted themselves to building a better world? Suppose they looked forward to a time when they could ditch the rat race to work for a cause they were passionate about? “The goal now is to be able to stop climbing the ladder and start making a difference, to trade money for meaning, to have the latitude to work on things that matter most,” he writes. Encore, published this week by PublicAffairs, outlines a futuristic scenario in which baby boomers defy their stereotype as selfish overindulgers who are going to bankrupt the Social Security system. Instead, they “function as the backbone of education, health care, nonprofits, the government, and a host of other sectors essential to national well-being.” In this new world, people do not generally retire until their mid-70s or later. They take a “gap year,” or sabbatical, in midlife to refresh themselves before they start their “encore” careers. Financial firms and other businesses profit from helping them plan for this new phase. Less affluent people get a second chance at upward mobility. Life expectancy rises as “continued engagement and purpose serve as a fitness program for the body and brain.” Sound a bit utopian? Mr. Freedman – the founder and chief executive of Civic Ventures, a think tank in San Francisco that promotes ways for older people to use their skills to help solve social problems – concedes that most economic forecasts paint a far gloomier picture, highlighting the severe strain that the lengthy retirements and health-care needs of massive numbers of baby boomers will put on the federal budget. But he insists that a revolution is afoot, something he discovered while talking to people for his book. “We’re in the midst of a big transition from one agreement about the nature of later life and the role of people in this stage of life to a new one that’s almost diametrically opposed to the earlier conception,” he said in an interview. A combination of fiscal, demographic, and social forces are converging to make retirement as we know it extinct, he says. “Essentially we had a 50-year compact in this country that made a deal with older people and said, If you please refrain from working and really contributing in any significant way, we’ll make it worth your while,” he says. Companies provided pensions, the government provided Social Security, advertisers and businesses promoted leisure activities for the “golden years.” “And if those didn’t work,” Mr. Freedman adds, “we’ll discriminate against you to make sure you don’t continue working.” The motives were not nefarious, he says. People of previous generations lived shorter lives, had more physically demanding jobs, and retired at a time when hordes of baby boomers were in line to get their jobs. Today, as boomers near traditional retirement age, employers worry about looming labor shortages. Secure company pensions are becoming a thing of the past and policymakers are looking for ways to rein in Social Security and Medicare spending. “Now all of a sudden there’s a great awakening and a sense that this can’t continue,” Mr. Freedman says, “that if it does continue with the new numbers of people moving into their 50s and 60s, we’ll have a calamity.” Paid Work Encore returns to some of the themes Mr. Freedman explored in his first book – Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America, published in 1999. Both books argue that, because of longer life spans, the concept of retirement as a time to relax and basically withdraw from society is outmoded – and that older people can offer a wealth of talent to charities and other groups that work for the public good. But while the first book highlighted ways that retired people could contribute to society by volunteering, in Encore, Mr. Freedman puts the emphasis squarely on the value of paid work, or what he calls “the freedom to work.” His book quotes a segment of a poem by Marge Piercy, “To Be of Use”: “The pitcher cries for water to carry and a person for work that is real.” “I am convinced that when all is said and done, it will be through work – through encore careers combining continued income and the spirit of service – that the boomers will make their greatest contribution to the greater good,” he says. Most boomers will have to work longer than their parents for financial reasons, he says, but many will want more than just a paycheck. “Studs Terkel put it best in his book Working,” he says. “According to Terkel, Americans get up and go to work each day every bit as much for ‘daily meaning’ as for ‘daily bread.’ The encore career amounts to a hybrid between the two.” In fact, when Mr. Freedman first started on his book, he planned to write an homage to Mr. Terkel called Still Working. Like Mr. Terkel’s book, it was to include first-person stories from people about their jobs – but they would come from older people who had shifted gears in midlife to start “encore” careers. Encore contains a handful of the stories that he and his colleagues collected for that project: the insurance agent who got a master’s degree and then a job working on homelessness for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development; the truant officer who became a nurse; the car salesman who started a nonprofit group to help poor people buy cars; the health-care executive who took a job working at a homeless shelter. But Mr. Freedman says that as he interviewed people, he started recognizing a pattern. “I realized that what these people were telling me and what I was learning from observing their experience had a lot to say about big changes that were under way in the society,” he says. “And that was an even more important story to tell. So I migrated from a book about individuals to a book about the changing landscape.” ‘Nostalgic Glorification’ Since Mr. Freedman wrote his first book, and especially after boomers started turning 60 last year, the generation that “wanted to change the world” has retaken center stage. Financial-services firms are wooing them, experts are writing books about them, people are starting blogs about them, radio and television channels are developing programs for them. Mr. Freedman says he is as uneasy about the “nostalgic glorification” of boomers as he is about their “vilification,” preferring to stick to the “harder characteristics” that define them – for example, as the most highly educated generation in the nation’s history. He might be expected to take umbrage at the recent satirical novel Boomsday, by Christopher Buckley, whose 29-year-old protagonist proposes that boomers commit suicide to prevent the country’s economic collapse. But he calls the book both funny and constructive. “We’re not going to kill all these people, so what are we going to do?” he says. “It raises a question that is useful.” The country has not yet answered that question adequately, he says. “The leadership for the most part is absent and I’m not sure where it’s going to come from. In the debates on Capitol Hill you don’t hear much about this issue, certainly relative to entitlement issues [like Social Security and Medicare].” However, Mr. Freedman is basically upbeat about the prospects for improving the way people live their later years. Other experts are more cautionary. Paul Hodge, director of the Harvard Generations Policy Program, in Cambridge, Mass., says he agrees that people need to think more about how to shape their careers over a long life span. But the aging of America presents some severe challenges, he says, and “we have a lot of work ahead of us before we make things rosy.” For example, he says, many Americans are approaching retirement with meager financial resources – especially women. Mr. Hodge, who was an expert adviser to the 2005 White House Conference on Aging, edited a recent study that found that boomer women have more debt than their predecessors and are less likely to have traditional pensions, spousal benefits, or health coverage in retirement. Furthermore, Mr. Hodge adds, age discrimination is rampant. He believes that will change as employers face growing labor shortages. But for now, he says, “nothing fundamental has changed in terms of the marketplace. It’s very difficult for older workers.” But David Simms, who helps recruit senior managers for charities, calls Mr. Freedman a “visionary” and says his message is critical for nonprofit groups given the “leadership deficit” they are facing. Charities will have to recruit 640,000 new senior managers over the next decade as baby-boomer executives retire and the number of charities grows, according to a 2006 study by the Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit consulting organization in Boston. Many of those positions will have to be filled by people from outside the nonprofit world, says Mr. Simms, managing partner at Bridgestar, the recruiting arm of Bridgespan. “I’m not sure what the other alternatives are,” he says. “It has to be a part of the solution.” Promoting New Approaches Mr. Freedman’s group, Civic Ventures, which opened in 1998, runs a variety of projects designed to create more public-service opportunities for older people. Civic Ventures won widespread publicity last September when it named five winners of the first $100,000 Purpose Prizes for people at least 60 years old who are working to solve social problems in an innovative way. Last month, it announced winners of a new prize, the BreakThrough Awards, which honors nonprofit groups and government agencies that have developed programs to employ workers age 50 and above. Civic Ventures has just created a new Web site that offers news and resources for people who are interested in “encore” careers. And next fall it plans to start an intensive four-year campaign, with a $10-million grant from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the foundation in New York, to raise the profile of its “encore” movement and stimulate policies to promote it. Mr. Freedman’s book recommends multiple steps that policy makers and employers could take to make it easier for workers to start new midlife careers. They include tax incentives, more-affordable health insurance, flexible working conditions, a national-service program for older people, and a “reverse GI Bill” to provide federal money for education and training. Companies like Home Depot and Borders have made progress in one sense by creating part-time, flexible jobs for older workers, Mr. Freedman says. But he fears that such “bridge jobs” will become the “default option”: “I worry that unless we expand the range of options of people to include this idea of an encore career that only the retail sector will reap the dividend of people’s longer working lives.” One signal that American culture has yet to come to grips with the changing dynamics, he says, is that no one, including himself, has yet coined a good term to describe people who are between midlife and true old age – a stage where terms like “elderly” or “seniors” can seem inappropriate. “The reason we haven’t come up with the right language is because we haven’t fully understood that this is a new phase of life that will require a new language,” he says. “It’s going to take a while until that gets worked through.” But Mr. Freedman believes that self-interest will push employers, workers, and businesses to create a “tipping point” within the next five years. “It’s going to feel like it’s not going to happen for a long time, then all of a sudden it’s going to happen,” he says. “We’ve been out of alignment for quite some time now. It’s almost like a social ‘chiropracty’ that’s going to happen.”

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