The problem with older adults is not that their percentage of the population is increasing rapidly. The problem is society does not understand this demographic shift is really an opportunity.
This longevity dividend means more people with more time, resources and experience – in pursuit of new purpose. The new generation of older adults is less about retirement and more about repurposement.
“Almost no acknowledgment of the substantial positive aspects and potential of an aging society is occurring,” states Columbia University professor John W. Rowe in his article for Public Policy & Aging Report (Fall 2011), who laments that “too little attention is paid to the potential upside.” The upside Rowe identifies includes accrued knowledge, stability, creative capacity and conflict management.
Rowe suggests U.S. society needs to broaden its “life-course” perspective to encourage redistribution of life’s core activities and institutions, including education, work, retirement and leisure.
We need to put to rest the ageist, glass half-empty mentality which characterizes the Boomer generation as a “silver tsunami.” Longevity and older adults are about assets, benefits, solutions and opportunities. Perhaps nowhere is this potential greater than within the nation’s workforce.
From a practical standpoint, Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, proposes to spread out work for more years, trim work hours and days, and integrate sabbaticals into schedules to allow time for other obligations. As rationale, she notes the obvious – the money from 40 years of work cannot sustain 30+ years of retirement. (Stanford Report, 2-17-12)
Surveys of Boomers show that a significant number expects to work beyond retirement age, for financial reasons or personal choice. This is a good thing, too. Greater workforce participation contributes to the gross domestic product, lessens reliance on federal programs and strengthens pension funds, according to Carstensen’s essay in the book Multi-Age Workforce (Routledge, 2015)
Where others see problems, Carstensen sees opportunities. “The number of older people in the world is the only natural resource that’s actually growing.”
EARN AND EXPLOIT REPURPOSEMENT
Whether it is mandated or legislated, tested by a progressive employer, or simply and more likely evolves over time, “retirement” as we now know it is going to change. It has to. The current system is archaic and financially unsustainable – for the U.S. economy let alone for individuals.
Here is my proposal — the objectives and process — based on the word “repurpose.” The goal is to modify or distinguish one’s intentions – in work and life. In other words, the intent here is literally and figuratively to replace retire, retiring and retirement with repurpose, repurposing and repurposement.
First, there will need to be a designated new workforce practice, a “repurposement age,” which goes into effect between 60-65 years of age and lasts to 75-80 years of age. At this stage of employment, an employee’s schedule switches to part-time. The 50 percent status will be determined by days per week or weeks/months per year.
The objective of repurposement is three-pronged. One, employers will be able to concurrently retain experienced workers who can also mentor and train new employees. Two, job seekers will become gainfully employed; and part-time with potential for full-time is better than unemployed. And three, older employees will benefit by balancing the security of continued income with the freedom to do other things – like volunteer, start an encore career, travel – while still healthy, independent and mobile. Plus, this supports the oft-expressed desire of Boomers to remain productive, relevant and purposeful.
Of course there are the inherent challenges with such a transformation, among them being an equitable benefit structure for part-time workers, accommodations for tag-team positions, and workforce diversity and intergenerational relations.
After all, “All grand strategies eventually deteriorate into work,” business management legend Peter Drucker infamously warned.
So, where and with whom to begin? Government, as the nation’s largest employer, would be the logical, precedent-setting choice. It could work for large manufacturers and retailers could initiate pilot programs. And it would make sense for pension-intensive labor forces, including teaching, nursing and public safety, to initiate such a practice on their terms before it is mandated. Technology, investing, law and similar white-collar professions would stand to benefit substantially from pan-generational workforce reciprocity.
In all cases, consider the mutual exchange between new and veteran employees of ambition and experience, enthusiasm and patience, and confidence and wisdom. In the best of ways, this exemplifies generativity and the profoundness of one generation helping another.
The bottom line: there is a silver lining to our population’s increasing longevity. But like all successful social movements throughout history, positive change begins with positive attitudes and actions. And it’s going to take generations, working together.