Some people say it’s time for boomers to clear the room. And some leaders in the nonprofit world might agree.
It is easy to understand the reaction. With nearly 10,000 people turning 60 each day, an army of marketers now exists to tell boomers that they are the center of the universe. Steeped in nostalgia, the heavy peddling of boomer narcissism includes books and TV specials with names like The Boomer Century, Boomer Nation and the recent best seller Boom! In the words of a Dallas Morning News headline: “It’s All About the Boomers.”
In this context, it should be no surprise that a boomer backlash is building.
For more than a decade there have been warnings about “a coming death shortage,” in the words of one Atlantic magazine headline, and mountains of entitlement debt, followed inevitably by generational warfare. All of this is infused with invective against boomer self-absorption. Thomas Friedman of The New York Times recently branded his fellow boomers the “greediest generation,” while his fellow columnist John Tierney dubs this group “the whiniest generation.”
Put the two views together and you end up with this logic: Boomers are the center of the universe, and they’re ruining everything.
Surely we can do better than that. For better or worse, the boomers, born in 1946 through 1964, will be with us for decades to come. Now is the time to figure out how we can make their transition to a new stage of life more for the better, less for the worse. The stakes couldn’t be higher for nonprofit groups and others who care about marshaling talent to solve the great problems that confront us.
To make the most of the demographic revolution, we must reject false dichotomies that paint boomers as either paragons or pariahs, and that counterpose experience and change, as we have seen in the presidential campaign.
To start, some straight talk. The boomers are the first generation in American history in danger of leaving the world worse than they found it. Boomers know it, and they fear it, according to public-opinion surveys.
At the same time, the nation — and the world — today face serious problems that need to be reversed in the three or four decades the boomers have left. Our challenges in education, poverty, health, and the environment all require a massive infusion of human capital, experience, and ingenuity. Only a significant commitment by large numbers of people will make the difference required.
Rather than coddling and castigating this generation, we need to challenge the boomers — much as President John F. Kennedy did when the boomers were growing up — to answer a call to commitment and to service, to find meaning through something larger than themselves.
As the Time magazine writer Joe Klein puts it: “I believe that the failure of my generation, the baby boomers, to sacrifice for the nation in any significant way, as our parents did, is the source of much of the sourness and corrosion that afflict our public life.”
But a plea to pure “sacrifice” seems dated and unlikely to succeed. Instead, I believe an appeal to practical idealism and, yes, personal self-interest can elevate this generation to greatness.
We won’t need everyone, but we do need all those who already have an impulse to come together across differences, and to come forward to commit to making a significant difference in solving problems that require an urgent investment of time.
We in the nonprofit world — especially those of us who are part of this generation — should challenge one million boomers to commit 10 years each to solving these big problems.
Everyone has something to give, and with 10 million person-years of talent and experience we can make real progress — not just a symbolic dent — in advancing social goals that won’t get solved any other way.
Sound like a formidable challenge?
There is no question that this task will involve a lot more effort than buying red, as suggested by Product (Red), the rock star Bono’s campaign to persuade shoppers to finance efforts to fight AIDS in Africa, maybe even more than going green. But I believe it can be achieved for a simple reason: It makes a virtue out of a necessity.
Today, as the period between the end of midlife and the beginning of true old age continues to stretch, especially as midlife careers grow shorter and life spans ever longer, a new stage of life is being forged. For many it is accurately the second half of adulthood, a period lasting two or more decades.
It is likewise a new stage of work. Polls reveal that 80 percent of boomers expect to continue working long past the time when their parents left the stage. New statistics show the trend is already in gear. After decades of decline, the proportion of workers older than age 55 in the labor market has gone from a fifth to a quarter in a little over five years. And in December the Bureau of Labor
Statistics projected that the number of workers over 55 will grow at 5.5 times the rest of the labor force between now and 2016.
But what kind of work will these individuals actually do? That’s a question of particular interest to nonprofit leaders. The “New Face of Work Survey” commissioned by Civic Ventures and the MetLife Foundation three years ago found that more than half the leading-edge boomers, those age 50 to 60, were interested in second careers in government, as well as education, health and the rest of the nonprofit world.
What’s more, a solid quarter of the people age 50 to 55 saw that goal as a priority — and they wanted to jump the gun, heading down this path while in their 50s, rather than waiting until eligibility for Social Security and Medicare.
Tens of thousands are already searching for a calling in the second half of life, one at the intersection of continued income, new meaning, and social impact — one I call the “encore career.” Many more are considering just such a path.
By moving them from aspiration to action, we might produce breathtaking results. What if we managed to summon the time, talent and experience of a million boomers, investing in 10-year encore careers? It might turn the old dream of nonprofit organizations, of money being no object, on its head. What if talent was no object?
That might not only erase concerns about pending leadership deficits, but also enable solutions never before possible.
Realizing this dividend of talent and experience seems like an easy win. The abstract appeal is considerable. Nonprofit groups that depend on talent will need leaders and staff members in the coming decades. Boomers need paying jobs, and many would prefer ones that confer both meaning and impact. A match made in heaven? Perhaps, but not one made so easily in practice. The truth is, after a decade of advocacy by various groups, progress remains fitful.
It’s time to have a conversation among nonprofit leaders that’s as honest as the one we need to have with boomers.
Yes, we need to challenge boomers to make a big commitment.
But we need likewise to push nonprofit employers to get over their youth-centric recruitment attitudes and be more open to engaging the little-discovered continent of talent existing in the wave of boomers moving into the second half of their working lives — not only in new people moving from business and other careers, but those in our own ranks with experience and a burning desire to continue making a difference.
That leads to a discussion of the gritty details that will face nonprofit groups ready for serious consideration of engaging the boomer talent pool — with everything on the table.
Yes, it can cost more to hire older employees, in terms of both salaries and benefits.
Yes, some older employees won’t be up to speed technologically.
Yes, it can be awkward when younger employees manage older ones.
True, many older employees want flexible jobs, and nonprofit groups mostly have traditional, full-time openings. And surely some older employees who have worked in business or government will struggle to adjust to an unfamiliar organizational culture.
While these are certainly daunting challenges, there are already innovative nonprofit groups grappling with, and in many cases breaking through, on each of these issues — over all, finding ways to make multigenerational talent forces work effectively.
Talk to them and they will all tell you the same thing: The payoff from this hard work is substantial.
Breaking through these barriers and answering the boomer challenge — on the part of individuals and organizations — could produce a windfall of talent for those areas that matter most, redeem the boomers’ legacy through a second wind of contribution and purpose, and even hand a great gift to future generations of workers who aspire to encore careers at a later stage in their lives. Who knows, they might even come to thank those who cleared the path.
Marc Freedman is the founder and chief executive of Civic Ventures, in San Francisco. His most recent book is The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife. This article appeared in the March 6, 2008 issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
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