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How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement And Transform America
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Over the next three decades, the number of Americans over fifty will double, swelling to more than a quarter of the population. Already we are living thirty years longer than a century ago, with further gains expected in the coming years. The end result is a new stage of life, one as long or longer than childhood or middle age in duration, and one spent in unprecedented good health. Yet, as individuals, and as a society, we’ve shown little imagination or wisdom in using this great gift of a third age. Marc Freedman identifies the new longevity as not a problem to be solved, but an opportunity to be seized-provided we can engage the experience, talent, and idealism of older Americans. At a juncture when the middle-generation faces a time-famine, struggling to simultaneously raise kids and work long hours on the job, the older generation is awash in free time, poised to succeed women as the trustees of civic life in this country. In the process they stand to find new meaning and purpose in their lives, and abandon the limbo-like state unfulfilling for so many older individuals. Freedman argues that the aging phenomenon, the massive transformation that many portray as our downfall, may in fact be our best hope for renewal as a nation.
PREFACE TO THE PAPERBACK EDITION
Our enormous and rapidly growing older population—commonly portrayed as a burden to the nation and a drain on future generations—is a vast, untapped social resource. If we can engage these individuals in ways that fill urgent gaps in our society, the result would be a windfall for American civic life in the twenty-first century. We might just accomplish something else along the way: bring greater fulfillment and purpose to the postmidlife years and transform what it means to age in this country.
This is the argument of Prime Time. And with publication of the hard-cover in spring 2000, 1 set out on a tour designed to communicate the book's message as widely as possible. It was a heartening experience. Many of the people I met agreed emphatically with the notion that older Americans are an overlooked national asset, and some were already at work forging "second acts" dedicated to public service.
One of the most inspiring encounters occurred early in the tour, in San Diego, where I appeared on a morning interview show at the local National Public Radio station. After talking with me about Prime Time, the show's host asked listeners to respond to the ideas being discussed. His invitation unleashed a procession of calls, mostly personal testimonials about finding new life in so-called retirement, underscoring the power of purpose and illustrating the wide range of possibilities for significant engagement in later life.
These tales and several more like them left me eager to hear more, and I found myself edging forward as the host agreed to take one final caller. On the line was Mary, a woman just turned sixty. However, she had not phoned to announce her own third-age civic heroics.
"I would like to disagree with everything that's been said," she began in a voice polite but quavering with emotion. I was stunned. Wasn't the notion that older adults are an important social asset obvious to all? How could anybody disagree so vehemently, especially somebody in this stage of life themselves?
To make matters worse, Mary wasn't a crank. She was simply someone who had worked hard since age sixteen, functioning as a paragon of productivity for more than forty years, opting to put on the brakes only when her boss persisted in heaping greater and greater responsibility on her. Finally she said, "That's it," and retired.
Having also, along the way, raised children on her own, she was exhausted. And though Mary was by no means yearning for the golf-course retreat of her parents' generation (her goal was to walk on the beach and to meditate), she was offended by what sounded like my exhortation to take on more duties, make more contributions, do more work.
In the coming weeks I heard this protest from others, interspersed among more affirmative reactions. Its recurrence forced me to a pair of realizations. The first was that I was inadequately communicating the hope for an aging America expressed in Prime Time. My goal was to expand opportunities and options, not obligations; it wasn't to promote an endless grindstone, or to uphold giving back as the only legitimate route to aging successfully.
Rather, what we need to do is widen the range of compelling pathways available to individuals in later life. Specifically, I believe, we need to uphold and develop the option for public service that constitutes the greatest potential "win-win" combination for individuals and society. We have long failed to do so. It is still much easier to disengage or focus on leisure in later life than it is to make a significant investment in the common good.
The second realization was that as much as I would like to dismiss the concerns of individuals such as Mary as unusual or idiosyncratic, they in fact reflect a widespread social problem in this country today. Quite simply, midlife overwork in America has reached pathological proportions. Indeed, this situation presents one of the greatest challenges to realizing the aspirations at the core of Prime Time.
Consider new data from the International Labor Organization (ILO) revealing that Americans now work harder than any other population in the world. According to the ILO study, we added 36 hours of annual work during the 1990s. As a result, we can claim 137 more hours of labor a year than Japanese workers and an astounding 499 hours—or twelve and a half weeks—more work than our German counterparts.
No wonder Mary, like so many others, is tired. Indeed, the new wave of Americans approaching later life might well constitute the most exhausted generation in our nation's history. So, at precisely the juncture when we need the time, talent, and experience of the older population more than ever before—given that those in the middle generation are overwhelmed with work and family responsibilities—this group is worn out from years battling the midlife time bind.
How might we resolve this dilemma, not only to realize the potential benefits of engaging the talent of older Americans but also to avert troubling concerns about the consequences of a rapidly growing, politically powerful, and socially disengaged population of aging boomers?
First, we need to be realistic. Not everyone will want to pursue public service in later life. Some will prefer to hit the links, while others will choose to do nothing at all. It is their privilege.
The good news is that studies continue to show that a significant portion of the aging population is interested in giving back. Recent AARP research reveals, for example, that half of Americans over fifty are planning to incorporate service into later life. Considering the size of this cohort in the coming decades, we are talking about a potential tidal wave of available talent.
We also need to be patient. Many of those interested in making community service, volunteering, or public interest work an important part of their postmidlife plans are not going to be ready to plunge headlong into these pursuits after leaving midlife jobs. They will want time to rest and exult in their liberation from schedules and commitments. For a while, they will likely want to do the exact opposite of everything they were doing before. However, after some months, or even years, of tending to other priorities many will likely be rested and restless—ready to explore new kinds of commitments.
This last point suggests something very important about how the concept of retirement is shifting. Increasingly, retirement has ceased to characterize a stage of life and instead describes an interlude between stages. More and more individuals are "retiring" for a period—to catch their breath—before making the transition to a new chapter in life embodying a new definition of success and a distinctive combination of learning, growth, and contribution.
Finally, realizing the potential for individual and social renewal inherent in the aging society will require considerable savvy. Significant numbers may well be receptive to engagement in volunteering, national service, and other forms of public interest work in the new chapter replacing retirement, but there is a difference between receptivity and reality. Bringing about a transformation in the actual role of older Americans will require substantial cultural and institutional change. We will need both to tell a new story about what is possible and desirable in later life and to create far more compelling opportunities for translating interest into action.
Much of Prime Time is dedicated to laying out how we might move forward on each of these fronts. However, a set of important developments since the first publication of the book is worth reporting.
As stated, we must revamp our message to the current and coming generation of aging Americans. To start, the challenge will be to convince these individuals that public service can be more than the kind of busywork long associated with "senior volunteering" (whose obsolescence is captured brilliantly in a recent Fortune article chronicling the frustration of retired executives attempting to apply their talents as volunteers in the nonprofit world—a piece titled, "Candy Striper, My Ass").
In replacing these musty notions, we will simultaneously need to do a better job of understanding what is on the minds of this new generation, what they might be looking for in new kinds of civic engagement. Some insights may be found in important social marketing research just completed by Margaret Mark, the former head of research at the advertising agency Young and Rubicam.
Mark's interviews with "retired" Americans (aged fifty-five to seventy) across the country and all along the socioeconomic spectrum confirms that these individuals love their newfound freedom and will be reluctant to trade it in for anything that smacks of punching the clock again. In focus groups and in-depth interviews, for example, they wax rhapsodic about the pleasure of no longer having to commute. Yet, when asked about their overall happiness with the retirement experience, they also express profound reservations. In particular they reveal a powerful sense of loneliness. Initially, these sentiments are puzzling, given that the men and women interviewed describe themselves as now far more available to friends and family. What they miss, it turns out, is not only a sense of purpose but the bonds they experienced at work—in Mark's words, "relationships with a purpose." Although purely social relationships have expanded in retirement, these developments cannot replace the kind of connection that came from working together with others to achieve a common goal. People not only miss these relationships but fear that they are lost forever.
None of this should be surprising for a reason closely linked to the post-work fatigue of the new retirees. Another side to the reality that Americans are spending all their time on the job is that they are accustomed to deriving an unprecedented degree of their identity and social life from the workplace. When they leave their careers, the paycheck isn't the only thing that vanishes.
In keeping with this notion, Mark argues that an important hook in prompting these men and women to try public service options may well be the chance to recapture purposeful bonds, especially if these opportunities simultaneously promise to make good use of the skills they have accumulated over the years. This last point raises another key finding of the research: although the individuals studied detest labels evoking chronological age or separation from earlier stages, they are drawn to language that emphasizes and affirms the value of what they have learned from life.
There is an adage in the marketing world that the fastest way to kill a bad product is good advertising. What if we succeeded in telling a compelling new story about the benefits of civic engagement in later life? What would individuals find waiting for them once they made the decision to come forward? Overall, the landscape of opportunities continues to be spotty, and we risk squandering the idealism of those who want to serve.
Signs of progress are to be found, however, among them a growing range of models aiming to translate the skills of aging professionals to new civic purposes—to my mind the undiscovered continent in this arena. Prime Time describes the work by older doctors to create free community health clinics serving the poor, and I am pleased to report not only that these medical clinics continue to proliferate but that lawyers are now getting into the act. One example, Legal Service for Children in New York, is mobilizing retired attorneys to help families of children with special education needs. At a time when only 13 percent of lawyers in firms of fifty or more attornies are over the age of fifty-five, we are witnessing a massive departure of talent in the law-firm world—an exodus that might be redirected to help nonprofit organizations and legal services.
Innovation is coming from established organizations as well. For example, through Habitat for Humanity's Care-A-Vanners, hundreds of older adults in recreational vehicles are defying the conventional notion of a Winnebago retirement. Rather than heading down the leisure road, the Care-A-Vanners travel from one Habitat site to another, building houses for the poor. In the process, a mobile community—built around "relationships with a purpose"—has taken shape.
Other noteworthy developments are evident in places both familiar and unexpected. I am encouraged by AARP's recent appointment of Bill Novelli as the organization's new leader. Novelli, a former Peace Corps staffer who retired from a highly successful marketing career in his fifties to run the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids and other public interest operations, embodies everything that I uphold in this book. Given his background, it is little surprise that he has pledged a return to the vision of AARP's founder, Ethel Percy Andrus, who established "To Serve, Not to Be Served" as the organization's motto.
More surprising are predictions coming from leaders among the younger generation of public policy thinkers, quarters usually associated with the doom-and-gloom perspective on the aging of America emanating from groups such as Third Millennium. In a recent book, The Radical Center, Ted Halsted, head of the New America Foundation, and Michael Lind, a senior fellow at the foundation, hold out the aging of America as an impending civic renaissance. "While many fret about the fiscal implications of the baby boom's mass retirement," argue Halsted and Lind, "history may show these worries to be far outweighed by all the potential economic and civic contributions of a large pool of healthy and publicly minded senior citizens."
They make a case for the presence of this potential in many ways identical to the one articulated in the coming chapters; however, they propose radically different means for getting there. To me this is an enormously encouraging development: the emergence of genuine debate about what it might take to realize the potential present in an aging America.
The most important impetus of all toward realizing a new role for older Americans in the civic life of this country may well be the events of September 11.
John Gardner, to whom this book is dedicated, recently observed that "it is a simple, easily forgotten truth that we need each other." In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, there is much heightened awareness of the truth Gardner articulates. We can hope that this awareness will include realizing that we need the most experienced segment of the population, especially if we are to have any chance of sustaining the civic outpouring we have witnessed since the events of September 2001.
The potential payoff is not just in expanding volunteer numbers or talent. As the New York Times reported shortly after the attacks—in a commentary subtitled, "Younger Americans notice that experience counts in a time of crisis"—many of us were turning to older relatives, friends, and neighbors for the consolation of a longer-term perspective. It was a powerful example of how much we need the long view and other unique contributions that only this group can provide.
Ultimately, if we succeed in harnessing the social resources and distinctive perspective of older Americans, we might not only revitalize our civic life but help solve another fundamental issue in the process: the insane distribution of work and time that currently exists in this country, where midlife exhaustion is rampant while millions of older people are shoved off into the sunset. In short, we stand to create a society where both the burdens and joys of engagement are balanced across the life span, and all generations help to share the load—in other words, one that works better for everybody.
The Aging Opportunity
We're living through the greatest miracle in the history of our species—the doubling of life expectancy since the Industrial Revolution—but we prefer to believe that our troubles are growing.
The Work Connection was inspired, in part, by Peter DiCicco's conviction that labor unions needed to think bigger, to range beyond the narrow objective of improving contracts for their members. They needed to become involved in strengthening the community and in standing up for the disenfranchised. The failure to do so, he was convinced, would mean marginalization. And as a vice president of the International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE) and head of its New England District Council representing workers at the Lynn, Massachusetts, General Electric plant, DiCicco was in a position to act on this conviction.
However, it was a personal experience as much as anything that sparked The Work Connection idea. DiCicco's nineteen-year-old son was in a car accident and ended up in court. At the hearing, DiCicco came forward to ask the judge for a community service sentence rather than a fine. "My son wasn't working," the union leader recalls. "He couldn't pay. So the court was fining the parents—not the boy. It isn't that I was unwilling to pay, but I was concerned because it didn't hold my son accountable for what he did." The judge agreed—but was simply too busy to get involved with creating new programs.
So DiCicco took on the idea himself, and soon the local electrical workers union was preparing to create what would become The Work Connection. In technical terms, The Work Connection was an "alternative sentencing program." Young people in trouble with the law for nonviolent crimes were given a second chance and a choice: They could avoid going to a "house of corrections" if they stayed out of trouble and compensated the victims of their crimes. In other words, they had to repay owners of all those televisions and stereos they had pilfered to get money for drugs.
The early reactions to the idea—from judges, police, community leaders—were quite favorable, yet there was also persistent concern about the ability of these young people to find and keep jobs. After all, if they failed to make their restitution payments, they would end up in jail. And these were kids who had never held steady employment, had dropped out of school, had no job skills or know-how, and could now boast a criminal record on their resumé.
For any of these kids to succeed, they would need extensive hand-holding, pragmatic advice, and new connections. They could forget about getting any of these from their probation officers, staggering under huge caseloads and generally more inclined toward scaring the boys straight than helping them get a foothold in mainstream society. They were unlikely to get that help from social workers either, for all their lofty intentions. How many social workers had ever looked for a job at an auto repair shop?
At roughly the same time DiCicco was struggling to get the program off the ground, he was required to leave town for an IUE conference in upstate New York. One of his responsibilities as an official in the international union was making the rounds to meet with various constituent groups. At one point in the proceedings, he ended up with the retirees. It was a low point of the conference.
These retired men seemed only to want to complain about what the union wasn't doing for them. As DiCicco was driving home, he continued to stew about the session. The retirees had everything going for them: excellent pensions, health benefits, years to live. Meanwhile, young guys in the union were being laid off and were facing real hardships. They were the ones with reason to complain. As DiCicco turned the session over and over in his mind, he realized it wasn't that these retirees were all that bad off materially—or had gotten such a raw deal from the union. What they lacked was purpose in their lives. They had too much time to sit around and think about what might be wrong with their situations.
Most of these men were individuals who had taken early retirement, often through incentive packages, but who were unprepared psychologically and socially to retire. For decades, the structure, human contact, and purpose in their lives had come, to a significant extent, from work. Now they found themselves in the position the great labor leader Walter Reuther years earlier had characterized as "too old to work, too young to die." They didn't consider themselves senior citizens: They weren't ready for the casino trips to Atlantic City. The local senior center had little to offer them. By default, they were spending their days staring at Phil Donahue, doing odd jobs around the house, and driving their spouses crazy.
But they were hardly washed up. In fact, they possessed exactly the kind of skills that the kids targeted by The Work Connection so desperately required. These men knew the Boston-area, blue-collar job networks—and were privy to the kind of informal information that's so often far more useful than the want ads when looking for jobs. They also knew the workplace. They knew what was expected, what you could and couldn't get away with, and how to get along in that setting. What's more, they had the time to listen to these kids, as human beings, not as professionals.
Why not solve two problems simultaneously, DiCicco thought, in a way that made obvious common sense? Get union retirees involved in mentoring kids and helping them break into the job market, and in the process, give the retirees themselves a new lease on life.
After he returned to District Council headquarters in the working-class town of Saugus (next to Lynn and the GE plant), DiCicco sent out a mailing to his own retirees, inviting them to help plan a role for themselves in The Work Connection. He received a dozen responses. For several weeks these retired electrical workers came down to the District Council headquarters every day at noon to eat sandwiches, shoot the breeze, and help devise the program.
A Stroke of Luck
I arrived at The Work Connection two years later. DiCicco's program was by then flourishing. He'd raised money from foundations and from the state criminal justice system. The number of retired mentors had grown considerably. Success stories were piling up. And all of this was good news for me.
At the time, I was working for a nonprofit group in Philadelphia dedicated to helping poor children. We'd just run into unanticipated good fortune. Our director flew to California to talk to the board of a foundation newly interested in the issue of jobs for inner-city teenagers. His speech went well. So well that the trustees of the foundation decided to give him an unsolicited grant.
There would be one string attached, however. For several years, the foundation had been funding "intergenerational" projects in which young and old were brought together to enjoy each other's company. Most of the money was spent on feel-good efforts that did little harm but were not about to change the world. The board decided more serious problems needed to be tackled than underwriting field trips to the nursing home for elementary school students.
Nevertheless, a small sum remained unspent in the foundation's budget. Would we be able to use that money to write something—really, anything—about bringing the young and old together? It was time for the philanthropy to get its budget spent and to move on to bigger and better things.
We said yes, in part because we were just not inclined to turn away money. But, mostly, we had an idea. For years one issue had continued to loom larger and larger in our experience with efforts to help children. It seemed that whenever we bothered to talk to the young people about what mattered most to them, we heard little about the sophisticated curriculum or other techniques we professionals spent so much time and money concocting. Rather, these young people wanted to talk about a person, usually an adult staff member or volunteer, with whom they had developed a close relationship.
Because we were an organization full of economists and quantitative social scientists, we didn't quite know how to incorporate what the young people were telling us. These relationships couldn't be reduced to variables or shoehorned into our research equations. We hankered to return to the hard-nosed business of developing "people-proof" programs—in other words, the kind we believed could be more reliably reproduced.
But as time went by, the perspectives of these young people became increasingly hard to ignore. They kept recurring, in more and more settings, with growing insistence. What these teenagers were saying—to anyone who would listen—was that they needed, more than anything else, adults who cared about them, who listened to them, who were willing to take a personal interest in their lives.
So by the time our serendipitous grant arrived, we were finally ready to take a closer look at the role mentoring might play in young lives. To satisfy the California foundation, we would restrict our focus to situations in which the mentors were older adults, and I was soon busy scouring the country for examples of members of the older generation being recruited to take young people under their wing.
Unfortunately, I couldn't find any. I found plenty of "nice" things going on: lots of arts and crafts and friendly visiting, but nothing that seemed to be taking on urgent social problems. I was beginning to understand why our benefactors in California were getting out of the "intergenerational" business—when chance intervened again. As luck would have it, in casual conversation I learned that a friend of a friend was employed at something called The Work Connection—and The Work Connection was using labor union retirees to mentor young people growing up on the wrong side of the tracks. I would at least have one project to talk about in my report to our fortuitous funder.
Nevertheless, driving into Saugus on a damp November day, I could feel my initial enthusiasm wane. Downsizing had arrived in the area, and the whole North Shore above Boston was showing the effects. Saugus looked like a ghost town. My destination, the New England District Council "headquarters," turned out to be little more than a drab, two-story house covered in clapboard siding, surrounded by a rusty fence and a dirt yard full of rocks and trash. Hanging over the front door was a weathered sign with the IUE logo. I parked in front of the sub shop across the street and headed inside.
- On Sale
- Aug 4, 2008
- Page Count
- 304 pages