At the recent White House Conference on Aging I attended, AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins invited attendees and those watching online to “disrupt aging.” I share her sentiment, but would add: Let’s rally around “constructive aging,” forging a diversity of opportunities to maintain health and vitality across the lifespan.
To do this, the time is now to recognize and promote the assets of the 76 million-strong boomers, touted as the most educated, healthiest and wealthiest generation in history.
Rewriting the Tunes for Longer Living
As a member of this generation, I see us as pioneers. We are being given the opportunity to “rewrite the tunes” for longer living, not only for the current generation but for future generations. The “top of the charts” should reflect the current culture:
- A longer average life expectancy and improved health care have made people in their 60s and beyond still interested and capable of working
- The economic downturn of 2008 and the need to fund a longer lifespan without pension plans have created the need for many to continue accumulating wealth in their 60s and 70s
- The socially conscious culture of boomers fuels the desire of many to contribute to social causes and addresses their need to be purposefully productive and economically stable
- Demographics will soon create a labor shortage in the U.S. economy that will be exacerbated by a recovering economy
- The pending wave of boomer retirees will cause a “brain drain” of experienced workers
- A significant amount of job growth is forecasted to be in the areas of health care, education, the government and not-for-profit organizations — the sectors in which boomers have indicated they wish to contribute
These factors not only challenge our notion of traditional retirement at 65, they challenge our notion of current paradigms of living, working and learning — all aspects of aging.
Whether it is Marc Freedman’s seminal books reflecting the encore career movement, Laura Carstensen’s directorship of the Stanford Center on Longevity or Paul Irving’s book, The Upside of Aging (to name just a few examples), society needs to embrace the “successful aging” theme.
We are being given the opportunity to “rewrite the tunes” for longer living, not only for the current generation but for future generations.
Time for a New, Positive Label
We also need to coin a new, positive label that defines members of this segment of the population who want to remain relevant; not be segregated or marginalized and who want to use their talents, experiences, knowledge and energy toward making a social impact.
The term “encore career” has been given to work defined as fulfilling one’s passion while making a social impact. But no positive term or label yet applies to the individuals themselves in this phase of their lives who wish to embrace the pathways of giving back and making a difference. Instead, we lump all individuals over age 50 or 55 as “seniors.”
A new, positive label needs to reflect the valuable assets that these individuals do, and can, contribute to society. I propose that we consider calling this cadre of individuals “Gener-agers.”
The term stems from Erik Erikson’s seventh stage of psychosocial development: generativity vs. stagnation. Generativity refers to the “need to create or nurture things that will outlast the individual.” Similarly, “Gener-agers” embraces a sense of humanity and optimism. Individuals who are socially purposed thrive, even to the point of staving off the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
The desire to be socially purposed should be harnessed and fueled by policy initiatives that benefit both the individual and the greater society. We can use measurable outcomes in improvements in quality of life, economic security and innovation to address the gains we can achieve in personal and societal well-being.
Not an Exit, But a Movement Toward
Now is the time to dive in to our dividend years or second acts and, as University of Minnesota Sociology Professor Phyllis Moen so eloquently wrote, view this timeframe “not as an exit from but rather a movement toward” a productive and exciting phase where we can promote our assets and contribute to our families, communities and society.
At the White House Conference on Aging, President Obama remarked that “one of our best measures of success as a nation is how we treat our older Americans.” A more compelling and visionary message would be that we judge our success by how we utilize the social capital of older Americans.
The time is now to establish socially purposed pathways that will endure, be followed and be expanded upon by future generations of “Gener-agers,” not only in America but around the world.
Let’s make these paths a reality that can be showcased at the next White House Conference on Aging in 2025, nearing the time when there will be more Americans over the age of 65 than under 15.