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3 Big Ideas for Successful Aging in America

Proposals from keen minds who brainstormed to reinvent retirement


Editor’s note: This article is part of a year-long project about aging well, planning for the changes that aging brings and shaping how society thinks about aging.

America: You have an aging problem.

No, it’s not that 10,000 people are turning 65 every day. Or even that there are too few younger workers to pay enough in taxes for the boomers’ Social Security retirement benefits.

The real problem is that government policies, businesses, the media and society at large aren’t adequately addressing — or, in some cases, contemplating — the potential of the nation’s aging population.

Fortunately, however, some trailblazing thought leaders are thinking a lot about this.

(MORE: How Are We Supposed to Grow Older?)

The Successful Aging Innovation Summit

I was fortunate enough to be among 27 of them last week at the Milken Institute’s Successful Aging Innovation Summit in Los Angeles (ranging from university deans to nonprofit heads to a rabbi) and wanted to report on what I heard, including the big ideas that bubbled up. This mini-summit was part of the Milken Institute Global Conference 2014, which some call “The Coachella of Capitalism.”

Paul Irving, President of the Milken Institute — the nonpartisan thinktank dedicated to improving lives and economic conditions — said the summit’s objective was “nothing less than reframing the notion and narrative of retirement” (though he conceded “we weren’t going to solve all the problems of the world in one session”).

Traditional retirement, with its passé assumption of disengagement, needs to be retired, said Irving, who recently edited the excellent book with an aspirational title, The Upside of Aging.

“How do we take people who want to do more and create a pathway to allow them to do that?” asked Dr. Phillip Pizzo, former Dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine and Founding Director of the new Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute. “It requires retooling; the systems are not quite there.”

(MORE: Aging Is the Next Big Investing Opportunity)

Retirement Then and Now

Said Catherine Collinson, president of the nonprofit Transamerica Institute and its Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies division (which just released a national retirement survey worth reading): “Our vision of retirement has changed radically from the 1950s, when you’d stop work, never set the alarm again and live a life of leisure.”

The reality, said Tamara Erickson, an Executive Fellow in organizational behavior at the London Business School and management consultant, is that “we could be facing the biggest renaissance period possible, with a generation that has enthusiasm and time — which is something we never had before.”

Many attendees felt the nation might start rethinking retirement by coming up with a new name for it. Marc Freedman, CEO and Founder of the nonprofit Encore.org, joked that he liked the term his mother-in-law uses: “She says she’s on her next to last dog,” Freedman told the group.

Highlights from the Milken Institute Successful Aging Summit:
On Work and Purpose

Tamara Erickson: “There are three types of work: age-dependent (like sports stars who require the physical dexterity of youth); age-independent (service jobs that older people can do equally as well as younger people) and jobs where age, experience and wisdom counts.

“If I had to send someone to North Korea to negotiate the release of prisoners, I’d choose a 60-year-old over a 30-year-old. There are lots of jobs like that where wisdom pays dividends.”

(MORE: Why Professional Men Over 60 Keep Working)

Dr. Phillip Pizzo: “When I was Dean of the medical school at Stanford, I engaged with colleagues and asked them when should physicians undergo physical and cognitive testing to see if it was safe for them to continue practicing? Many said: ‘I’ll know when my time is up’ or ‘I’ll ask my friend.’ Well that’s a pretty dangerous place to be.

“In law, most people find that by age 60, the opportunities begin to shrink and law firms segue them out. In finance, by 50, you go by the wayside. For people in the working class, it happens even earlier.”

Michael Hodin, Executive Director of the Global Coalition on Aging and a managing partner at High Lantern Group: “The R&D [Research and Development] tax credit incentive for innovation can be very useful in all kinds of areas. A tax policy to employ older workers around skilled development is an interesting idea that would have payback.”

Lester Strong,  CEO AARP Experience Corps, where adults over 50 volunteer to tutor children: “Research shows that AARP Experience Corps volunteer tutors see improvements in their mental and physical health. They report feeling a greater sense of purpose in their lives because they see the effect of their work on their students.”
On Living

Laura Geller, Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills which created The Next Step Boomer and Beyond Initiative: “A lot of boomers have joined the temple and they understood they have less time ahead of them as they have behind them and they are looking for ways to bring meaning and purpose into what time is left.

“We invited all our members age 50 to 75 to participate in our initiative and 200 responded positively. We’ve held a series of meetings in members’ homes to reflect on: What does this stage of life mean to you? What keeps you up at night? What gets you up in the morning? What do we need to do in our community to help you with this stage? For many, especially men, this was the first time they ever shared their feelings about this. It was extremely liberating.”

Marc Freedman: “Fifty years ago we did a strange thing and rerouted the rivers of life, convincing older people they were younger people, that ‘graying is playing’ and they should have a second adolescence. We have to turn that around and go with the grain of human nature.”

Henry Cisneros, former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Clinton and mayor of San Antonio: “We need to be more honest about this period of life. We romanticize it as though it’s mostly upside. There’s a lot that’s not upside about functioning in society at that age. Life’s realities crowd in: financial, health and frailties.”

On Government Policies

Dr. Linda Fried, Dean of the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and Co-founder of Experience Corps: “All of society’s intuitions about aging are wrong. Period. The policies that are built on them are also wrong and the metrics don’t work.”

“My pet peeve is the old-age dependency ratios [people eligible for Social Security vs. adults under 65] that guide Washington quite hugely but are based on amazingly anachronistic assumptions. The numerator is that all the old people are dependent and the denominator is that all the younger people are working and productive. It sets policy decision-making in ways that are really problematic and limit our assumptions.”
What Should Be Done?

After our freewheeling discussions, participants broke into smaller groups to brainstorm Big Ideas. Here are the three most popular (though not everyone favored them); they’re a bit squishy, due to our time constraints:

1. Launch The Boomer Corps. Taking a page from FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which put thousands of Americans to work in environmentally-friendly jobs during the Depression, The Boomer Corps would be a public/private partnership engaging boomers to work on the social issues of our time.

Hodin, however wasn’t keen on a boomercentric approach towards successful aging.

“If we give the impression we’re focusing on boomers, we missed it,” he said. “The questions around what successful businesses must do to attract and retain good talent are as much around those who are living longer and working to their 70s an 80s as what to do for 22-year-olds who could work for 80 years.”

2. Create America’s Most Age-Friendly City. The Milken Institute might sponsor and support this initiative that would be along the lines of the World Health Organization’s Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities.

“There are no cities today doing all the things they could, with a comprehensive approach, to be age-friendly,” Cisneros said.

Which city would it be? I suggested the aptly-named Youngstown; another participant similarly favored the Old Town section of Alexandria, Virginia. But the place could be selected through a competition, along the lines of investor Esther Dyson’s HICCup nonprofit (Health Initiative Coordinating Council), which will pit five communities of under 100,000 against each other to see which improves its health and vitality the most over five years.

Using the famed Framingham Heart Study as a model — medical researchers have been studying the heart health of residents of Framingham, Mass. since 1948 — the selected city would be measured at the start of the project and then reevaluated quantitatively over time to demonstrate improvements.

3. Reconceptualize work. Spurred by Erickson’s three-types-of-job designations, human resources departments would take a fresh look at the way they position, well, positions.

Over time, applicants and employees would start looking at work this way, with special emphasis on jobs where experience — and, dare I say, age? — is viewed as a plus.

Simultaneously, employers would focus more on intergenerational teamwork, which could well increase productivity and profits.

I don’t know whether any of these ideas will turn into reality, but here’s hoping they (or even better ones) do. After all, the alternative to successful aging is a scary prospect for all of us.

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