As someone who researches consumer behavior, I’m finding that the desire of boomers to help younger people is part of a larger social trend. A 2011 study found that half the fiftysomethings in the United States want to have a positive effect on younger generations. And according to the late psychologist Erik Erikson's theory of generativity, boomers are right on time with this yearning to help guide the next generation. He believed, and I concur, that the other option is bleak: stagnation.
Mentoring can take several avenues. I choose to volunteer, working with a graduate student and arts entrepreneur named Daris. But mentoring comes in different forms that can include various financial scenarios. Sorry Luke Russert, not all Gen Y'ers see boomers as a roadblock to younger leadership.
(More: Why You Need a Reverse Mentor at Work)
After stepping down from a successful career at a global software company in Chicago, Edward Hamburg, 61, looked at his options. Endless rounds of golf held no allure. He’s now using his years of experience to help others build businesses, and he is compensated in a variety of ways.
A former University of Chicago professor turned businessman, Hamburg’s Yul Brenner good looks radiate self confidence. What he loved most about his job as a chief financial officer at his software company was playing a supporting role to the chief executive, which allowed him to help steer a complex organization. Missing the thrill of grooming executives and future CEOs led Hamburg to want to help grow younger leaders. Today he’s more active than ever. He sits on five corporate boards, plus a global non-profit. “I get all the good stuff but don’t have any of the operating details,” he says. “It’s exhilarating.”
Balancing passion with a paycheck is a goal for many boomers. And there is meaningful paid work to be had. These salaried second acts often involve teaming up with young upstarts who want to gain access to our depth of experience and our expansive networks.
That was the case when Danielle Grace Warren, 30, of New York, hired Wickham Boyle, 62, as vice president of Just Shea, a collective that farms shea nuts in Ghana. The proceeds go to paying 600 Ghanaian women a fair wage and furnishing them with protective boots, gloves and hats to fend off dangerous snake bites. Boyle has had an eclectic career, from theater management at La Mama in New York to being a Wall Street broker. Together, she and Warren recruited a range of pro-bono talent, including a Long Island chemist who formulated the product and designer Todd Oldham, who donated art for the package design.
Fully embracing the do-it-yourself ethos of today’s start-ups, Boyle even played host to a labeling party in her Tribeca loft, inviting friends to peel and stick into the night.
Boyle effuses the benefits of working for Just Shea. “I have been re-launched,” she says. Having lost a senior-level job at a magazine in 2008, her life was shrouded in a gray morass of depression. But now she feels “catapulted back into life.” Trips to Ghana to help build a silo and a 16×60-foot shed yielded a bustling new marketplace for the buying and selling of shea nuts. Now, the two women are poised to raise another round of social venture capital to expand Just Shea. Warren is optimistic about her prospects now that she has an experienced right-hand woman.
“Wickham has an incredible breadth of experience and her world is so vast,” she says. “We take things on and succeed.”
As a generation of successful women matures, expect them to be ambitious about shaping the future for younger women. “The willingness of people to believe that women are other women’s worst enemies is wrong-headed,” says Sally Helgesen, an international expert on women’s leadership. “Successful women are not only interested but passionate about helping other women succeed.”
Not yet feeling the itch to give the next generation a leg up? Expect that you will, and there are good reasons to act on it. Here’s what’s in it for you:
1. Discover your hidden value: The experience and business acumen boomers possess are prized by younger generations. As the job market remains tight, many young people compete aggressively for internships and access to senior-level talent. Marci Alboher, vice president of Encore.org and author of The Encore Career Handbook, and the soon-to-be-published Encore-Career-Handbook-Difference, explains that there are two ways of looking at maturity — either it’s a barrier or an opportunity to unleash your most well-cultivated abilities. People who fall into the second category can have remarkable second acts, Alboher says.
2. Increase your cognitive reserve: Although we slow down both physically and mentally as we age, there is evidence that a lifestyle rich with problem-solving situations and intellectual challenge makes us more resilient. For many of us, these activities result in more efficient cognitive networks that are resistant to dementia. This is what is meant by “cognitive reserve.” Working in new ways with younger people expands our repertoire of social and intellectual situations.
3. Get in touch with your inner parent: It can be argued that the nuclear family is a relic of a simpler time. Women climb the career ladder. Men delay the responsibilities of fatherhood. Both keep hitting the snooze button on their biological clocks until time runs out. It’s a known fact that the desire to parent is deep-seated. The drive to fulfill this need motivates many mature adults to help a younger person thrive through guidance and good will. Similarly, empty nesters can find an appropriate outlet for skills they developed by being parents.
4. Sustain the best part of you. Passing on our skills and wisdom can also counteract the identity crisis that seems to go along with getting older. You’ve met them — idle retirees who overshare their feelings about being adrift in lives without roles. This may be the stagnation Erikson warned against. Working with Daris, for example, calls forward many of my strengths.
5. Boost your energies: It takes effort to maintain a quality of life. “The inevitable act of aging is little more than a byproduct of suboptimal living,” says the Scientific American blogger Katie Moisse. On the other hand, cries of, “What an incredible energy boost” and, “I feel so alive!” are common refrains for people who shake it up, Alboher says.
Still feeling too time-starved to add one more thing to your life? Here’s my suggestion: double down. Look at the things you’re already doing and refocus them. If you are active at your alma mater, swap the committee job for a mentorship connection. That’s what more than 70 percent of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School active alumni are doing, according to Linda Darragh, executive director of the Levy Institute for Entrepreneurial Practice and the Heizer Center for Private Equity and Venture Capital.
Eventually, life teaches us what truly matters.
Recently, I sat down with Daris. He wanted advice on his plans to convert an abandoned Chicago Fire House into a co-working space. If it succeeds, the project will transform an otherwise blighted neighborhood and incubate new businesses. Daris asks me hard questions that cause me to reach back into my past for answers. But the light in his eyes makes me feel more connected to the future. It’s the best of both worlds.
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