CEO Champions the Encore Career
The program was a success--up to a point. The students thrived, and mentors in their 50s, 60s and older often got as much out of volunteering as their young partners. But Freedman had trouble finding enough adult volunteers, so thousands of kids stayed on the waiting list for help.
That experience sparked Freedman's interest in exploring what he calls the "untapped human resource" that people over 50 can offer to society. He went on to start Experience Corps, a Peace Corps-style service for middle-aged adults, and has become one of the nation's foremost authorities on encore careers for the baby boomer generation.
Today, Freedman, 52, is CEO of Civic Ventures, a San Francisco incubator and advocacy group that helps people find meaningful work in later life. Civic Ventures initiatives include annual Purpose Prize, which provide grants of $50,000 and $100,000 to social innovators over 60, and Encore Fellowships, which train corporate retirees to work at nonprofits.
In an interview with SecondAct, Freedman talked about the state of encore careers, the trend of delayed retirement and how to foster creativity in the second half of life.
SA: How did you get involved in this area?
MF: I spent the first half of my working life focused on young people growing up in poverty and got interested in the question of human talent and the role adults could play in helping kids turn their lives around. That led to an interest in people over the age of 50 and, with others, the creation of Experience Corps. It became clear that the need for people to work longer was growing. I realized many people couldn't afford to do Experience Corps for a stipend. They needed market-rate jobs that combined a paycheck with the same opportunity to have a social impact. So Civic Ventures grew out of that.
SA: What is an encore career?
MF: It's a second act after 50 at the intersection of continued income, new meaning and social impact.
SA: You just finished the manuscript for your next book. What's it about?
MF: It's about the invention of a new stage of life between middle age and old age, and what we need to do in society to make that happen. If we do it in the right way, this new period will not only provide millions of people with a new identity but also help us develop programs and policies and educational institutions for people in that phase of life. Even though baby boomers would be first to benefit from it, it would be a fixture in the lives of younger generations since they're going to be at the forefront of this much longer lifespan we'll see in the future.
SA: What is this new stage?
MF: There are folks who contend there's a new developmental stage between adolescence and adulthood and it's basically the 20s. We're seeing a parallel phenomenon in midlife. We had life stages that went with a 70-year life span and now we have a 100-year life span, and it requires stretching those existing stages. Mary Catherine Bateson, the anthropologist and Margaret Mead's daughter, in her new book, Composing a Further Life, calls it Adulthood II. Others call it the Third Age. If we can acknowledge it and develop culture and social institutions and policies that go with it, it will help people [who are] transitioning into it have a richer experience.
SA: Aren't older people still perceived as being a drain on the economy?
MF: That's a possible outcome if we banish people from productive roles or make it difficult for them to continue contributing. I believe the opposite is possible. People at this juncture bring experience and a new perspective. They have the time to actually do something significant with it, as well as the impetus psychologically. I often say never have we had so many people with so much experience and such capacity to use it. But we're still constrained by outmoded notions. There was a cover story in Foreign Affairs this year about aging that described the working population as ages 15 to 59. That was an outmoded notion of the working population in the 1970s, yet those categories persist. The most comparable situation I can think of is when we systematically excluded women from the workforce for decades, and when they forced their way out of the home and into productive jobs, we were wringing our hands saying it was going to displace men. You look back now and think where we'd be in the global economy if we had lost out on that talent in our workforce. I think we'll look back in a quarter-century and find it hard to believe we'd exclude the population in their 60s and 70s from major productive roles.
SA: What's needed for things to change?
MF: People at this turning point in their 50s and 60s oftentimes are struggling. Their choices are: Go back to school in a way they did in their 20s or take some kind of life-long learning that's really just edutainment. There's not a well-developed system of education for people at that age. There are not well-developed experiential-type internships. There's not a financial aid system to enable people to weather the cost of making this midlife transition, to take a break. We need a gap year for grownups, not in the elite sense, but a chance for people to take a step back and invest in the next chapter in their lives. Now we blow all our investments in education for the most part on 18- to 25-year-olds. Again, that's geared to a 70-year lifespan. There should be an opportunity for people to have a second or third chance to do that. Why not be able to move up two or three years of Social Security to pay for a transition period in your 50s and then start Social Security payments three years later? Why don't we have IRAs or similar accounts for the transition to a second act? I think today it's all too often a do-it-yourself effort.
SA: What's the likelihood this will happen?
MF: There seems to be bipartisan receptivity to it, but there isn't yet a robust debate about these ideas. We're still consumed by arguing over features of a social-policy agenda set up for a 70-year life course. That's why it's so important to create a new category between middle age and older years because then we could fill it in with the right kind of policies, educational institutions and financial vehicles that people are going to need to save for something that's not retirement. But right now there's a lot of confusion about what this period is. To have a group that's tens of millions of people but has no name and no coherent policy agenda and is frequently lumped in with people who are truly elderly and have their own set of needs, it's creating a lot of confusion. It circles back to the point of why people think aging is such a terrible thing. We've done everything we can to extend life and health, and now that we're at the verge of breaking through, it's considered the worst thing to happen. It's paradoxical and nonsensical.
SA: You've said the new midlife goal is having enough assets to liberate yourself to work. What does that mean?
MF: Rather than trying to save so that we can live entirely off of those assets, try to save so we have room to do work that is personally meaningful and an expression of our priorities. It's also saving so you can take the time to make the necessary transition. So if you've always wanted to be a teacher and you have enough savings to get a teaching certificate when you're 57, or if you wanted to work with the environment, do a year-long internship at the wilderness society.
SA: Is there something about reaching this second act that turns on a creativity switch in people?
MF: I do think there is something unique about the psyche of people moving into this stage that leads them to re-evaluate their priorities and seek second acts with a particular feel or focus. I boil it down to a trilogy of mortality, longevity and urgency. You get into your 50s and for the first time you realize life is finite, that the road doesn't go on forever. For most of us, it takes a health scare or the death of a parent, or the tests you start taking at that age. You start thinking of mortality. At the same time, you realize you could live a lot longer, and maybe have some urgency about what you want to leave beyond your time.
SA: Entrepreneurship is a big second-act choice, yet the popular thinking is that starting a business is a young person's game. Why is that?
MF: I agree it's an enormous and widespread phenomenon. What if this is not only a positive development but a wave of innovation and entrepreneurship and creativity unlike anything we've ever seen? Researchers like David Galenson, an empirical economist at the University of Chicago, have discovered there were two spikes in creativity, both very young and after 60. Cezanne did his best work in his late 60s, and sculptor Louise Bourgeois did some of her greatest work in her 80s. Malcolm Gladwell did a chapter in What the Dog Saw on late bloomers. Others have come to the same conclusion--that it's not just the economy going bad that's causing people to start their own businesses, though I'm sure that's feeding into it. It's a bigger phenomenon, a late-blooming creativity that manifests itself in business, social change and the arts. As people live longer and are less deterred by signals that they should stop producing at a certain age, we'll see a new flowering of this creativity.
SA: Where does Civic Ventures fit into this?
MF: We're focused on people who have a burning desire to move into an encore career. That means working at the community college level to help people go back to school inexpensively, and with encore careers, developing fellowship programs.
SA: You started Encore Fellowships to train corporate retirees to work for nonprofits. What's happening with plans to take it nationwide?
MF: We got the program in the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act that passed last year, though it hasn't been funded yet. It would create fellowships in all 50 states. We started working with HP, and we're trying to expand to other corporations. We're very close to making several announcements about new sponsors.
SA: Parting thoughts?
MF: When I started the organization, I went to see John Gardner, who became one of our founding board members and is a great embodiment of a second act. He had been president of the Carnegie Corporation and won the presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964 when he was in his 50s. He went on to do some of his most significant work after getting that award. He founded Common Cause. He was secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under Johnson. He had the original idea for Experience Corps. Talk about creativity and second acts; I had a palpable example of that in John. He shows that there's more than one bite of the apple. That is very much built into the history of our organization and continues to be a touchstone for us.
Bio: Marc Freedman
Hometown: Philadelphia, now San Francisco
Personal: Married to Leslie Gray; three sons, 5, 2 and 10 months
First act: Manager, The South Street Dance Co., Philadelphia
Second act: Staff member at Public/Private Ventures, Philadelphia
Third act: CEO and founder, Civic Ventures
Education: BA, Swarthmore; MBA, Yale
Interests: American roots music
Books: The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage between Midlife and Old Age (Spring 2011); Encore: Finding Work that Matters in the Second Half of Life (2007); Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America (2000).
Honors: Nonprofit Times list of 50 most influential people in 2010; 2010 Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship from Oxford University; Fast Company leading social entrepreneur in 2007, 2008 and 2009.