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My Challenge to the White House Conference on Aging

This expert says the planners need to address work for older adults

Ahead of the once-a-decade White House Conference on Aging (WHCOA) covening next month, its planners have released a policy paper on financial security that identifies three components for older adults: Social Security, savings/investments and pensions. But the White House Conference left out an important fourth component: paid work.

I realize that older adults being paid for their work, including in retirement, doesn’t fit conventional narratives about aging: “It’s all downhill after 40” or “Woo hoo – I’m off to The Villages to play for 30 years!”

The government can help people finance later-life education by changing federal loan rules to support part-time, non-degree programs.

In reality, a growing movement recognizes a new “encore” life stage in midlife and beyond, where people have a desire to leave a legacy through second acts for the greater good. National research conducted by Penn Schoen Berlin and Encore.org suggests that 4.5 million older Americans are engaged in paid or unpaid encore work and 21 million more plan to join them before 2020. This stereotype-busting group is interested in social impact, mental stimulation, a sense of accomplishment and, often, a paycheck.

4 Areas for the White House Conference to Focus On

To make work a realistic part of retirement security, the White House Conference team should focus on four areas:

1. Highlight the value and capabilities of older adults to employers and society, rather than reinforcing stereotypes of frailty and dependency. Let’s ask the White House Conference to make a strong statement that older adults have many assets to offer employers.

2. Create more opportunities for encore talent in social impact areas, including education, health and social services. Most of today’s 4.5 million encore-ists were do-it-yourself pioneers (such as social entrepreneur Im Ja Choi, who launched a service-based nonprofit as her encore career: Penn Asian Senior Services). But a growing number of organizations connect encore talent with opportunities for paid work. Some are government-funded programs like Americorps and Senior Corps, which engages over 270,000. Many are nonprofits. In my decade of work on aging issues, the number of local and national organizations providing encore pathways has grown exponentially.

3. Use older adults’ special qualities as mentors and connectors. Last year, Cleveland’s Teach for America staff recruited retirees as coaches and mentors for entry-level teachers, providing valuable added support for their development. JumpStart in California has had similar success with older adults working with schoolchildren. Experienced adults have assets other workers do not; let’s ask the WHCOA to think about ways to use their known and established strengths, to continue supporting existing federal programs and to applaud innovative nonprofit models.

4. Expand access to later-life education that enhances skills or retrains for new jobs. Instead of ending education in our teens or 20s, let’s help people gain new skills in their 40s… 60s… and 80s as well.

Education providers need to get creative about offering substantive content in user-friendly, flexible formats. The government can help people finance later-life education by changing federal loan rules to support part-time, non-degree programs. Let’s make sure the White House Conference is aware of the importance of education and funding issues.

You may be thinking, “The real issues are that so many people have no savings . . . and even worse, we have no idea what our expenses will be for health care and housing.” You’re right. For many people, the combination of longer lives, minimal savings and open-ended expenses is a daunting (and occasionally terrifying) prospect.

That’s all the more reason why work has to be an option for boomers and future generations. We know lifespans are going to get longer and financial security will be even more of a challenge for our kids and grandkids. Let’s encourage our leaders to invest now, so society — and individuals — can reap, and share, the longevity dividend through their encore work.

By putting its weight behind valuing older adults, creating opportunities and later-life education, the White House Conference on Aging can elevate work so it’s a realistic component of financial security for older adults when we reconvene in 2025.

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