Boomers need to blaze new career trails

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Mark Miller

The oldest baby boomers started turning 65 in January. For the next two decades, America’s 78 million boomers will be qualifying for Social Security at a rate of roughly 10,000 a day for the next 20 years.

The age of 65 may be a symbolic milepost for aging — mainly because it was adopted as the official retirement age when Social Security was created in the 1930s under Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

But rising longevity and advancements in healthcare (and healthier living) have reduced the relevance of 65 as a harbinger of retirement. Many boomers express a desire (or need) to continue working long after they reach “retirement age.”

If the largest generation in American history can look forward to many more years of usefulness and engagement, what will they do with those years? I posed this question recently to Marc Freedman, one of the country’s leading thinkers and writers on how Americans can redefine life after 50.

Freedman is the CEO of Civic Ventures, a non-profit that’s leading the charge for the encore career movement — the idea that older adults can blaze new career trails that can transform the country.

His soon-to-be-released book, The Big Shift (PublicAffairs, April 2011), argues that we need to recognize and develop a new stage of life between midlife and true old age.

Keeping willing workers on the job

Freedman advocates continued participation in the labor force by older people who need and want to keep working. Labor force participation generates economic growth, and can contribute to national deficit reduction. There’s even evidence that working longer could extend the solvency of Social Security.

But don’t count Freedman among those who argue for a mandated higher Social Security retirement age. He prefers the carrot to the stick.

“I think what we need to do is focus on those who voluntarily are going to work longer — not necessarily [on] those who don’t want to, but have to,” he said.

“Rather than try to raise the retirement age or coerce someone who doesn’t want to work longer, let’s help those who are already determined to go in that direction get from aspiration to action.”

Freedman urges creation of public policies and programs that can help with these critical life transitions. “Right now, the only transition we do a decent job on is the one young people make from adolescent to adulthood. At this later juncture, it’s a do-it-yourself process:  You’re on your own.

“People are hungry for help with this. What we need are new pathways for people in their 50s, 60s and 70s. Let’s meet them halfway with additional education, internships or service projects. Let’s make it easier for this group to do what they want to do — and what we need them to do as a society.”

Innovative ideas

Expect to hear more from Freedman on how to make these transitions easier when his book is published in the spring, but here are some of the key ideas:

Education: Our higher education system offers undergraduate training for 18-to-25-year-olds and lifelong learning for those who are over 70 and truly retired.

But “a school for the second half of life has not been developed yet,” Freedman said. “It would be tailored for those who have another phase of their working lives yet to come.”

Freedman sees community colleges as the best candidates to offer this new encore career pathway, since they already offer career training, can offer affordable classes, and are well-connected to local labor markets and employers.

Financing transitions. Freedman wants to re-think the way retirement assets are used by splitting savings into two buckets — one for lifetime security and the other invested to produce income that can help pay for a mid-life career transition.

Some people already are using 529 education accounts and Roth IRAs for this purpose, but Civic Ventures has been advocating creation of a new type of savings vehicle to support midlife education.

It’s called an Individual Purpose Account (IPA). IPAs could incorporate valuable features such as tax credits, employer matches and loan options.

Volunteering as a pathway. The Serve America Act of 2009 funded a dramatic expansion of public service programs, and it envisioned national service “encore fellowships” to help people transition to public service in the non-profit sector. But the fellowships haven’t yet been funded.

In the meantime, some corporations are adding encore career programs and some community colleges are starting programs. Freedman still hopes the fellowship program will be funded and expanded.

Does the push for encore careers make practical sense in a period of high unemployment and scarce jobs? Freedman argues that the new life stage he envisions involves “a long-term structural change in the shape of our lives, and it will include upturns and downturns in the economy.

“And it’s not a zero-sum game of competition between the old and young for jobs. When we develop the new concept of this period of life and work, it’s something we’re doing not just for people at this juncture now, but for those who will live even longer later on.”

 Mark Miller is the author of The Hard Times Guide to Retirement Security: Practical Strategies for Money, Work and Living (John Wiley & Sons/Bloomberg Press, June 2010). Subscribe to Mark’s free weekly eNewsletter at Contact him via

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