Forget what F. Scott Fitzgerald said about there being no second acts in American lives. Today, millions of older Americans are into their third acts.
Social scientists used to separate adult life into work years and retirement years, but now, with a fifth of the U.S. work force expected to be 55 or older within four years, there’s a brand-new term for the work part. According to John Gomperts, chief executive officer of Experience Corps, the national program that engages people over 55 in meeting their communities’ greatest challenges, “Increasingly, people who have finished their midlife careers are opting for another career, this time in public service.”
In July, Gomperts’ colleague Marc Freedman, founder of both Experience Corps and Civic Ventures and one of the nation’s leading writers on the opportunities presented by the aging of America, addressed the Midwestern Legislative Conference, a gathering of young state-level lawmakers.
“Today in America,” he told them, “a baby boomer reaches the age of 60 every 6.8 seconds. For the last 50 years, we’ve encouraged, paid and prodded people to leave the work force. Now we’re being told we have too much of a good thing, that we can’t afford to have a quarter of the population spending a third of their life in subsidized leisure.”
The positive side, Freedman pointed out, is that often these older Americans are ready, willing and able to help by embarking on new careers, both as volunteers and as wage earners. Increasingly, baby boomers — the biggest, healthiest and best-educated generation in the nation’s history — want what are now called “encore careers.”
Freedman called the situation “a puzzle with missing pieces” but added, “I think the states can fill in the pieces.”
That’s a time-tested approach. Sixty-five years ago, Louis Brandeis wrote, “It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory, and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”
The states are no less courageous today. Tired of waiting for the federal government to act, and despite their own economic woes, states across the country are doing what states have always done: getting the ball rolling on their own.
In California, more than 100,000 of the state’s teachers — a third of the total — will retire this year alone, resulting in a shortfall of 33,000 math and science teachers in the next 10 years.
In an attempt to fill this gap, in June 2007, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger formed the EnCorps Teachers Program. In partnership with businesses, the state encourages retirees to become teachers of math, science and technical education. To give the program a high-profile send-off, Schwarzenegger asked motion-picture-executive-turned-philanthropist Sherry Lansing to lead EnCorps by recruiting more than 2,000 teachers in the first two years of the program.
Still, the state that has led the movement to help older Americans get back in the game is Arizona. Five years ago, the Grand Canyon State saw the problem coming and set up an ad hoc older workers’ task force spearheaded by Gov. Janet Napolitano. A year later, in 2004, it held an Older Workers Awareness Day that attracted 600 older workers and 70 employers.
Arizona hasn’t stopped since.
“This April, we launched the first Center for Workforce Transition with our partner, GateWay (Community) College,” said Melanie Starns, the governor’s policy adviser on aging. “The center has already trained 57 folks and has a class of 32 in process, all people who are looking to make midlife or late-life transitions into other opportunities.” She said the program also provides “a direct connection between boomers and employers that is almost like a ‘speed date’ format. Once a month, we have about 7,200 employers interacting with boomers who are looking to make mid- and late-career transitions.”
When Arizona launched its effort five years ago, businesses in the state made clear that they were eager to help, but, Starns said, “They did not want us to take a government, charity, social-service-based approach. That’s why our Web site is a dot-com, not a dot-org.” Part of the appeal of the new Web site is that employers can post a mature worker job opening for 30 days for free.
The success of the Grand Canyon State’s program is all the more surprising given the fact Arizona has a $2 billion deficit. Nonetheless, the Arizona program, the country’s most far-reaching, pays its own way. “What’s cool, and unique, about what we’ve been able to do,” a proud Starns said, “is that our entire effort is built on partnerships and leveraging. We’ve never had an appropriation. It feels a little arrogant to say it, but everybody points to us and says we are the leader. But it’s because we are not just talking but actually putting things on the ground with the most comprehensive approach — and doing it with no resources.”
And the reason for that, she said, is because Arizona approached the problem as “a systems-change piece and not as a little project.”
Some of the states that have followed Arizona’s lead are constrained by budget shortfalls of their own, but they do have programs that are off the drawing board and ready to go as soon as funds are available. In addition to Arizona and California, states with mature worker programs in various stages of readiness include Arkansas, New York, Wyoming, Maine, Maryland, Michigan and Massachusetts.
Whether or not a new administration in Washington will jump-start a national effort to help older Americans find rewarding employment and civic involvement remains to be seen.
“For now, the greatest strides are taking place at the state level,” said Shirley Sagawa, a founder of the modern service movement in the United States. “We expect the policies that prove successful to serve as models for the federal government in the future.”
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