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What Colleges Can Do for Americans at Midlife

A 2015 Influencer in Aging wants to see them take on a new mission

Editor’s note: This article is part of Next Avenue’s 2015 Influencers in Aging project honoring 50 people changing how we age and think about aging. Here, Dr. Philip Pizzo, one of the Influencers, blogs about what he’d like to see colleges and universities do to address aging in America.

The time has come for colleges and universities to take on a new mission: developing programs for midlife renewal. By doing so, they can connect renewed purpose with community building and a new calibration of health and wellness in midlife.

Let me explain why.

Higher Education and the Longevity Bonus

From their founding in late the 11th century, universities have played an important role in preparing individuals (albeit initially men) in their second and third decades of life for careers in the ministry, the natural and physical sciences, and philosophy and other humanistic disciplines.

Over the second millennium, universities and colleges evolved to meet the needs of local communities and nations. Various types of public and private institutions were founded, including land grant and teachers colleges, technical schools, small liberal arts colleges and mega and multi-universities with major research schools and institutes. Along the way, universities added graduate schools with doctoral degrees to their repertoire and, in the 19th and 20th centuries, professionals schools — including law, medicine, dentistry, nursing, public health and, most recently, business.

Universities have an opportunity to create programs for individuals in midlife seeking transformation, reinvention and redirection.

In recent decades, a handful of for-profit universities also emerged. The mission of these institutions is ostensibly to provide degree-based educational opportunities to individuals who would not ordinarily have access to a university or college, although they have had a challenged history of purpose and integrity.

At the beginning of the 20th century, universities — beginning with the University of Wisconsin in 1909 — developed programs for adult learners. They offered new opportunities for pursuing university degrees to individuals working at full-time jobs. This was taken to a new level with the founding of more expanded programming, such as at the State University of New York in 1969. This concept of continuing education embraced programs for sustaining knowledge expertise through recertification (e.g., in law, medicine, accounting) as well as programs of lectures and courses in broad areas to serve the interest of learners across the age spectrum, not tied to a specific degree.

The extensive Executive Education programs in business schools are a good example of the latter. Over the past decade, colleges and universities have employed web-based computer technology to offer online courses that are accessible globally — with free access and fee-based offerings. While these are important additions to the overall portfolios of universities, they do not provide a coherent mechanism for midlife individuals (or others seeking career transition) to enter university life as part of a community-building cohort — as occurs in the initial college experience.

An Evolving Role for Colleges and Universities

Despite these forays into adult education, the major focus of colleges and universities remains the education, training and development of individuals who are beginning their adult life and entering the workplace.

For much of our history, the preparation for careers in business or the professions that took place during undergraduate and graduate education provided the knowledge content for work or career that often extended through retirement. This made sense at the beginning of the 20th century, when average life expectancy was about 46 years for men and 48 years for women and even in 1935 (when Social Security was enacted) when average life expectancy was roughly 62 years for men and 65 years for women.

However, life expectancy in the U.S. and the developed world has continued to rise over the past century. In 2015, the average life expectancy for males is about 76 years for men and 82 years for women, with continued increases projected for the decades ahead. In tandem with these changes is the greatest demographic shift in history; by 2030, 20 percent of the population will be 65 or older.

Given the increased length of life and overall improvements in health and wellness overall— including the recent awareness that minimal chronic decline occurs between age 65 and 74 — what happens to individuals when they reach conventional societal norms for “retirement,” (generally age 60 to 65) has enormous individual, economic and public health implications.

If individuals sustain a sense of purpose, maintain intra- and intergenerational communities and preserve or renew health and wellness, chronic declines in health and function associated with aging might be delayed or attenuated. As a consequence, the need for medical and social services could be reduced.

This argues for new roles of colleges and universities that specifically address the needs of individuals in midlife (defined here as 50 and older).

An Opportunity to Create Needed Programs

Universities, colleges and community colleges have the marvelous opportunity to create programs for individuals in midlife seeking personal transformation, reinvention and redirection.

In addition to transforming midlife, novel programs could have a transformative impact on higher education overall, by fostering informal and formal paths for intergenerational learning, teaching and sharing.

The question now is whether colleges and universities will seek a broader role in preparing individuals for second or even multiple phase(s) of their work-life journey.

A number of pilot programs are emerging that are exploring opportunities for midlife education, including at Stanford University and Harvard University. (Full disclosure: I’m the founding director of one — the Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute.)

In addition, a number of institutions (such as Arizona State University, Pace College and New York University) and organizations like Encore U are focused on creating opportunities to return to school for career redirection or renewal.

That’s wonderful. But to meet the needs of a dramatically transformed 21st century society, I believe it’s time for institutions of higher education of all stripes to step up. By developing programs for midlife renewal, they can serve the needs of individuals and their communities, as well as our nation and world.

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