As the great midlife migration of baby boomers gathers momentum and scale, long-predicted revolutions in longevity and demography are unfolding in front of us. By 2015 we'll have more Americans over 60 than under 15 — and that's just the beginning. Demographers are predicting that more than half the children born in the developed world since 2000 will live to 100.
For the most part this transformation is portrayed as a source of coming economic, fiscal, and generational strife. In this scenario, boomers are entering their 60's, morphing overnight into retirees, and proceeding to weigh down a small group of workers in their middle years — producing an unbearable dependency ratio in the process.
But it doesn't have to be this way. Today tens of millions of 50-, 60-, and 70-somethings say they are eager to apply their accumulated skills in areas like education, health, and the environment. According to research from 2011, some 31 million people ages 44 to 70 want encore careers that allow them to continue earning a living and give them meaning that has an impact beyond themselves. They want to create a better world for future generations.
Turning dependence into abundance begins with breaking free from the "golden years" narrative of retirement. This is a tale first pioneered by insurance companies in the 1950s to convince older Americans that they weren't being ejected from the productive workforce, but rather had the freedom from work. This storyline is enjoying a resurgence today.
Consider Prudential's recent marketing campaign, prominently featuring Day One stories — tales of the first day of retirement. The company's ads and billboards warn of longer retirements. One tells us that we can expect to spend 6,000 days — nearly two decades — in retirement, while others state the first person to live to 150 is already alive. The tagline: "Let's get ready for a longer retirement." The billboards are paired with other ads that paint a picture of a perfect retirement. One individual featured suggests we should work to live, not the other way around. But can anyone afford an 85-year retirement? Is that sustainable for the nation?
In light of new data showing that extended working lives are far more likely than a massive expansion of the retirement years, it's time for a more workable vision — and a more socially productive one.
Instead of a barrage of Day One tales, how about more One Day stories? One Day is the rallying cry of Teach For America. The nonprofit helps thousands of young people apply their talents to solving significant social problems, starting by working in schools that need more support. The organization's motto: "One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education."
This One Day dream is not exclusively for young people. Take Paula Lopez Crespin a 50-something woman in Denver whose daughter had joined Teach for America. Crespin sat at the back of her daughter's classroom in inner city Los Angeles, watching the young woman educate low income kids, when she had an epiphany: She wanted to do the same thing.
So she followed in her daughter's footsteps and applied to TFA. To her amazement, she was accepted. Soon she was working from dawn until midnight at the TFA training, sharing a Houston dorm room (and a bathroom down the hall) with three 22-year olds. But she made it through, and became a Denver elementary school teacher.
Crespin isn't alone. There was another woman at the TFA boot camp — a former phone company employee — who was 62 at the time. In fact, TFA reports that there is a gradual but steady increase in post-midlife individuals entering the program — something that the organization hopes will expand as it attempts to attract a diverse corps of talented and committed people of all ages.
Realizing the promise represented by people like Crespin requires leading organizations like TFA to open their doors widely. It will likewise demand new opportunities and innovations, if we are to help those many millions seeking encore careers.
Another such route — and rite — of passage to these second acts is the Encore Fellowships program. These year-long, half-time fellowships, help individuals (mostly) from the corporate sector transition to new chapters in nonprofit and social impact organizations. For example, the California Health Care Foundation is matching Encore Fellows with community health clinics across that state. The program has spread rapidly over the past couple of years.
On the corporate side, companies like Cisco and Intel are offering Encore Fellowships to their seasoned employees. In late 2011 Intel announced that all retirement eligible employees in the U.S. who want to do an Encore Fellowship, and are matched, will be supported with a $25,000 stipend and health coverage. They are pioneering a whole new human resources approach to longer working lives — recognizing the reality that 21st century careers will entail multiple chapters, even into what was once the retirement years.
Creating these new paths to continued, meaningful work will help realize a sustainable and appealing vision for this period in life, but even these efforts won't be enough. We'll need new ways to help individuals finance the frequently costly transition to what's next. Currently this is a do-it-yourself process most manageable for those with extensive assets or the willingness to drastically cut back. There are reports of boomers tapping into their kids 529 accounts to finance their own shift.
Here's where financial services companies can help in ways that go beyond reframing their marketing messages. Why not create new financial products to enable people to save for the inevitable retooling that more transitions and longer working lives require? We've got Individual Retirement Accounts — IRAs — to save for retirement. We need Individual Purpose Accounts — IPAs — to help defray the costs of transitioning to new chapters in the middle years and beyond. What's more, we need financial advisors able to assist people in planning for alternatives to the "golden years." Since a balloon payment of leisure at the end of midlife is less and less likely, why not help individuals envision what comes next and finance it along the way?
With 10,000 boomers turning 60 each day, these changes are overdue. This population represents a human capital bonanza for the social impact sector and for the nation more broadly. It's time to fulfill the true promise of longer lives — which is a better society.
Insights from HBR and The Bridgespan Group
- Luring More MBAs to the Social Sector
- What Social Entrepreneurs Can Teach Your Company's Future Leaders
- Entrepreneurs: You're More Important Than Your Business Plan
- Give Us Feedback and Get a Free HBR Article