Makin' Money

The new creative class?

Chris Farrell Apr 1, 2011

The social entrepreneur Marc Freedman is the founder and driving force behind Civic Ventures. He created the nonprofit to encourage baby boomers–really anyone getting older–to engage in second and third careers.

His newest book is The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife. He advocates for the “the creation of a new stage between the end of the middle years and the beginning of retirement and old age, a third stage of life characterized by purpose,contribution, and commitment, particularly to the well-being of future generations.” It’s an imaginative exploration and a practical guide to thinking about what it means to live longer–and well

Marc Freedman: Searching for a new job isn’t easy at any age. It’s certainly not easy at, or beyond, midlife. If you’re like most of the people I’ve encountered, managing this transition feels like a DIY (do-it-yourself) project, with few guideposts and little support.

While you may feel alone in your search for a next chapter, rest assured you have plenty of company. The largest generation in American history is in transition, moving beyond midlife to an entirely new stage of life and work. Millions of people between the ages of 44 and 70 say they want encore careers that combine personal meaning, continued income, and social impact.

But where is the help in preparing for the opportunities out there, especially in the current environment? Historically, we developed an array of innovations to better enable young people to transition from school to work – career centers, guidance counselors, internships, gap years, service opportunities – but there has been little comparable investment to ease the passage from midlife to the encore stage.

There are emerging signs of hope. Dozens of community colleges are offering courses to those over 50 aimed at the transition into encore careers in education, health care, social services, and environmental work. Some nonprofits are offering “encore fellowships” – internships for those who have finished their midlife careers and want to bring their skills to the nonprofit sector. And national service organizations, like the Peace Corps, are enrolling more older adults looking for a way to shift to their next phase of life and work.

Still, these opportunities are scattered and far from plentiful. As a society, we need to think big and dramatically about increasing the pace of innovation. How about inventing a gap years for grown ups, during which they could rest, return to school, volunteer in a significant way, or try out a new career direction? How about financing this gap year with a new, tax-exempt savings vehicle we could call the Individual Purpose Account? What about providing greater flexibility with Social Security so individuals might draw down resources for a year or two to help underwrite a transition in their 50s and 60s in return for deferring eligibility for full benefits to an equivalent period later.

While we’re at it, what about rethinking our entire higher education system? Why cram so much of our education into our late teens and early twenties when we may want to move in a whole new direction in our 50s, 60s, and 70s? Where are the incentives to encourage those in their encore years to bring their skills to the areas where they are most needed? It’s time for a comprehensive Encore Bill that would help people in the new stage develop their human capital, transition into new roles, and handle the financial challenges.

If we act, we could do more than ease the passage beyond the middle years, as America’s great midlife migration gathers scale and momentum. The new stage could well become a destination–the way “early retirement” used to be–and the individuals flooding into this stage could become the human-capital solution to much that ails us in this society. We are in the position to make a monument from what used to be the leftover years, a second chance for people of all stripes to ascend the ladder of contribution and fulfillment, and an opportunity for society to “grow up” along with its population.

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