"The Big Shift" Recasts the Third Age of Life
Marc Freedman's "aha" moment came just after the Civic Ventures founder and encore careers pioneer turned 50. He was planning a family vacation to Oregon and booked a hotel room using his newly acquired AARP card. Then he needed to call back to order cribs for his sons, ages 1 and 3.
The juxtaposition of those life stages -- turning 50 and grappling with new parenthood -- set Freedman thinking how "the old map of life, which guided us for generations, was rapidly becoming an anachronism."
Freedman recounts the incident at the beginning of his new book, The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Mid-Life.
In it, Freedman offers a road map for baby boomers as they venture into what he and others have dubbed "The Third Age," a new stage of life after middle age, but before old age. Americans are living longer -- the average life expectancy is now 77.9 -- and many people are working longer, too, either by choice or by economic necessity.
More people are using the second half of life, he writes, to take on second careers, start businesses or follow long-delayed dreams to join the Peace Corps or serve their communities in other ways.
"It's a time," he writes, "when many have insight about what matters, a special impetus to act on this wisdom, and the ability to do so. In this respect, it's a potential sweet spot, a confluence rather than a reinvention."
Boomers are already encountering this new world, but society's perceptions of who they are and what they are capable of hasn't caught up -- nor have social institutions and government programs. That's causing a disconnect, Freedman says, that has left most people on their own when it comes to figuring out their next act in life, and how to find the time and money to pay for it.
"So how do we turn the period that's been opening after 50 from a stretch all too often characterized by identity void, economic disengagement and societal confusion into something that has a shot of being the new crown of life?"
Freedman says the DIY approach is no longer good enough. Instead, he proposes a 10-point plan to help people make the most of their extended mid-life by changing everything from Social Security payouts to corporate retirement policies.
He says those changes should include:
- Establishing "Individual Purpose Accounts" similar to tax-free health or college savings accounts that boomers could use to fund going back to school or grown-up "gap" years to explore new opportunities.
- Creating more university, community college and other education programs geared to later-life learners.
- Making Social Security payouts flexible, so retirees could stop them for a time if they went back to work.
- Revamping corporate human resources departments to assist employees phasing out of full-time work and into encore careers.
- Re-engineering national service programs to open up more opportunities for older volunteers.
Freedman helped establish the encore-jobs movement and is CEO of the San Francisco-based Civic Ventures, a nonprofit that offers training and resources for people pursuing post-corporate work in social entrepreneurship. His group's efforts include the annual Purpose Prizes, which awards $50,000 and $100,000 grants to innovators over 60, and the LaunchPad awards targeted to those over 45.
In 2010, Freedman shared some of these ideas in testimony before a Congressional subcommittee. But in an era of budget downsizing and partisan politics, it remains to be seen whether any federal or state agencies will adopt such changes.
In the meantime, The Big Shift serves as a useful blueprint for individuals of a certain age who want to make their own big shift.
Some of the best parts of the book are the stories Freedman shares of people who have made such transformations, including a public TV personality who went back to school to become a forest ranger; a chef who became an elementary school teacher and educational program director; and a military man turned corporate financial analyst and marketing specialist who landed in a Civic Ventures internship program that trained him to work for an environmental service group.
Freedman ends The Big Shift with a 20-question discussion guide to help readers spark conversations among friends, families and colleagues.
"After all," he writes, "one of the major points of this book is that, despite feelings to the contrary, we're not alone in this new stage of life. There are millions of us."
Update: Salon has posted an excerpt from The Big Shift, which Civic Ventures' Marci Alboher notes has sparked a barrage of comments from readers "celebrating, challenging, and downright decrying Marc Freedman's provocative position on a new encore stage of life." Your thoughts?
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