Monday, July 23, 2007

Tuesday Evening at the Citigroup Center Barnes & Noble: Marc Freedman & "Encore: Finding Work that Matters in the Second Half of Life"

This report by Richard Grayson first appeared on Jeff Bryant's blog Syntax of Things (go there for the original links) on Monday, July 23, 2007:

Two decades ago, I found myself the scourge of some of South Florida's senior citizens because of my attempts to end the discriminatory practice of senior discounts. I ended up being quoted on camera as part of a story on the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather and in a number of books and articles on the age conflicts between baby boomers and the then-elderly. (Most of the books, naturally, got the facts wrong).

Two weeks ago, I went to the Citi Center Barnes & Noble for an appearance by the social entrepreneur Marc Freedman of Civic Ventures, promoting his new book, Encore: Finding Work that Matters in the Second Half of Life.

The crowd -- and it was SRO -- consisted of mostly people in my own age cohort, roughly 55-64, the group no longer of interest in the TV Nielsen ratings and variously referred to as the "near elderly," the "young old," and "pre-seniors."

Freedman began by decrying all these attempts to label us and made fun of the dispute between those who see 60 as the new 40 and those who see it as the new 50: "Why can't 60 be the new 60?"

Millions of those of us in the baby boom generation (born 1946-64) will soon begin retiring in huge numbers. Or will we? Many of us cannot afford to. The three pillars of the old retirement system -- founded to get older workers out to forced fun on the golf links of Del Webb's Sun City in Arizona and Leisure World and Century Village in Florida ("Seizure World" and "Senile Village" were what my friends and I called the latter retirement communties back in the Eighties) -- pensions, Social Security, and savings -- are not what they used to be, not at a time when a lot of us will live much longer than our grandparents did. (And my grandparents lived to an average age of 84.)

But a lot of us are burned out in our current jobs, even though few of our bodies are broken the way manual laborers were. And even those of us who love our jobs are finding ourselves pushed out, given hard-to-resist early retirement packages, or just laid off so that management can bring in someone younger they can pay half our salary and benefits.

Polls show that most baby boomers expect to and want to "work in retirement," whatever that means. Freedman says doing so is both a virtue and a necessity, given the fiscal realities and looming labor shortages, with a much smaller generational cohort behind us. However, nobody's told a lot of the people making hiring decisions right now, and age discrimination is pretty standard, my friends and I have discovered. (Some of my friends who do make personnel decisions say they'd never hire anyone as old as themselves.)

That will change, says Freedman, and meanwhile, with critical labor shortages in three major fields -- health care (think nurses, of course, but also many other positions), education (one-third of all teachers may retire in the next five years), and the non-profit sector generally -- older workers are finding themselves in demand. And not just for the kind of Wal-Mart-greeter "bridge" jobs that didn't make use of the talents of many retired workers in the past.

Freedman's talk was received by the audience at the Citi Center B&N with a kind of grateful hunger, as if they'd been waiting to hear something like this since their last Eagles concert. Eager to share their stories and ask questions, the crowd kept him probably longer than he or the store managers would have liked -- since they wanted to get down to the business of selling the books. (Freedman had to get to D.C. for the next morning's Diane Rehm show.)

I read my copy yesterday, and I was pretty impressed. Freedman is very good on describing the way our current idea of retirement was created and sold to the American people and why it's no longer useful or practical. His book is interspersed with the stories of individuals who made successful transitions to second, third or fourth careers -- banking executive to educational administrator, stockbroker to clergyman -- though it's less a how-to than a might-could.

Baby boomers are the best-educated generation in American history (sadly, we are likely to remain that way) and it would just be stoopid to waste our talents. I know nearly all blog readers are younger, sometimes much younger, than 55, and I'm sure a lot of you wish we'd just move on (there's always Christopher Buckley's solution in his new novel Thank You for Dying -- uh, I mean Boomsday) but you might find you need us to do some necessary chores like teach your kids.

Me? After the event at the bookstore, I started talking to the married couple sitting next to me. The woman asked, "Are you transitioning too?" "I guess," I told her.

When I came back to New York last summer, I found it hard to get anyone to look at me for a full-time job, so last fall I had four part-time jobs, teaching five classes six days a week at four different colleges. It wasn't anything I ever would have done in my twenties, but hey, I've got a lot more energy now and I had a ton of fun. At the end of this year I go back to Arizona to give my sainted brothers a break when I become a caregiver for our mom with Alzheimer's. Not all older people will ever be able to have the encore they might wish for.

Freedman opens his book by painting two scenarios of the future; I hope, and I expect, that his second one will come true.

We greedy geezers are looking for something more meaningful than the senior discounts I tried to get rid of back in 1986. By the way, when was the last time you saw a bank advertising a better deal to customers over 50?

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