Work & Purpose

Don’t Predict the Future, Create It

Experience can be the difference in a new career opportunity

I learned as a journalist that when you can latch on to a big story and get out in front, you can get your articles on the front page — which was a good thing when there still was such a thing as newspapers.

One of the big stories I covered was Microsoft in the late '90s. So I spent a lot of time watching Bill Gates, and one of the things I learned from him was: “Track the inevitable.”

For Gates that meant tracking Moore’s Law. It isn’t really a law, of course, but it describes the remarkably consistent doubling of computer power every 18 months or so. Then all those computers got networked together, and everyone knows how big a story that turned out to be.

Demographics are way more inevitable than Moore’s Law. Today there are about 71 million Americans over 55. By 2030, there will be about 110 million. Worldwide, for the first time in history, the number of people 65 and over is about to overtake the number of children under 5.

That’s a megatrend that is driving all sorts of other changes, including rising spending in all of the entitlement programs and big deficits in pubic and private pension funds. The budget wars could pit nursing homes against schools, and Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid (and interest on the debt) against almost everything else in the budget.

Intergenerational conflict could become ethnic conflict, particularly in places like California — pitting younger, browner people against older, whiter people.
So I spotted a big idea when I was talking about this demographic wave with Marc Freedman, the founder of Civic Ventures. He said: “It’s not a problem. It’s an opportunity.”

I said, "Huh?"

He explained, "People always ask, `What if money was no object? What could we get done?' ”

"What if talent were no object?"

What could we do for youths and schools and communities and health care and the environment and so on with a flood of energized, talented, experienced people who have finished whatever they did earlier and want to use their 50s, 60s, 70s to really make a difference, really make change?

We've done surveys, as have others, and it turns out that giving back, or making change or helping others is very or extremely important to about half of all the people in that age range. They have this impulse called generativity — it must be evolutionary: the urge to pass on a better world to the next generation.

For the other half, not so much.

That’s still something like 40 million people now, growing for the next 20 years, who want to put purpose at the center of the next stage of their life. That’s a huge windfall of talent that should be able to make a dent in meeting some of society’s greatest needs.

Now here’s where we depart from Gates’ advice to track the inevitable. With actual people, nothing is inevitable. For starters, very few of those 40 million have any notion of how to redeploy their experience for the greater good.

So I signed on with Freedman and the Civic Ventures team for my own encore career, for what has really been a big social-construction-of-reality project.
It’s about both mental frameworks and actual frameworks to realize that windfall of talent. There are few institutional supports for people to take on 10-, 15- or 20-year social-purpose encore careers. Indeed, there remain strong disincentives and obstacles.

A few pioneers have figured it out, of course, on their own. And Civic Ventures collects their stories. One good way to get a lot of stories is to offer a lot of money. So we (or rather, our funders) put out $100,000 Purpose Prizes, five each year, for extraordinary social innovators over 60. This year we got more than 1,400 nominations.

Purpose Prize winners are people like Gary Maxworthy, who was in his late 50s and had spent 32 years in the food industry when his wife died. He wanted a change. He joined the San Francisco Food Bank as a Vista volunteer and was dismayed that the families got only processed food, not fresh fruit and vegetables.
So he took what he knew from the food industry and got more than 40 food banks to join forces so they could take delivery of the millions of pounds of fresh produce that growers send to landfills every year. The produce may be blemished or too small to sell, but it’s still perfectly edible. And Maxworthy set up a distribution system and started Farm to Family, which last year provided 78 million pounds of fresh produce to families in need across California.

The people who make something good out of something awful are just amazing. Maybe the generativity gene is related to the resiliency gene that kicks in when people step up.

Elizabeth and Stephen Alderman lost their son in the World Trade Center on 9/11. They took the money from the federal Victim Compensation Fund and set up homegrown mental health clinics for survivors of terrorism, torture and trauma around the world.

They didn’t know how to do any of this when they started. She was a special ed teacher, and he was an oncologist. Now they’re near 70 and have clinics in Rwanda, Uganda, Cambodia and Haiti and have trained something like 350 local doctors to treat post-traumatic stress.

Extraordinary people doing extraordinary things. Those always make good stories.

But if you really want to go to scale, we need ordinary people, millions of them, doing extraordinary things — extraordinarily good things. We need all hands on deck.

We've boiled down the essential elements of an encore career.

First, personal significance. It’s got to resonate. It’s got to mean something to you, personally. “Saving the world,” it turns out, is not a very powerful driver. “I feel useful and appreciated,” is very powerful.

Second, financial security. Continued income, not just volunteering. Even before the Great Recession, the retirement assets of aging baby boomers were totally inadequate. The Golden Years dream of 30 years of leisure was dying long before encore careers were on the radar screen.

The trend toward ever-earlier retirement reversed sometime in the ’90s, and retirement age continues to rise. It’s a bona fide trend: People are working longer.
But what kind of work? There are lots of ways to think about work. The retail sector is the leader in older-worker innovation, with some very good benefits and arrangements. There’s a reason the Home Depot guy is there.

So the third element of the encore career: social purpose. Elevating the value and the status of transforming education, protecting the climate, making everyone healthier. Those things have real value, so working on them should make at least as much sense as Home Depot.

Encore careers are about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Of course that makes them anything but ordinary. That’s the Encore Equation. Tapping into the resiliency gene that’s triggered by social participation and recognition to invert the myriad crises we face and turn them into opportunities.

It's more than a little bizarre to talk about the crying need for encore talent and about great, satisfying jobs for tens of millions of boomers with the U.S. unemployment rate at nearly 10 percent.

First, this is about the need for talent and experience, not about job openings. This is, "Ask not what your country can do for you but …"

In the future, there is likely to be plenty of work for everyone. Because there are far fewer Gen Xers than boomers, by the end of this decade we may be talking about a shortage of workers, not a surplus. All you have to do, which we’ve done, is cross the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics job projections with expected labor participation rates, and you come up with something like 5 million unfilled jobs in 2018. Half of those are in what might be called the social sector — education, social services, health care and the like.

So encore careers aren’t about ego-gratification work for overprivileged boomers, or busy work for well-meaning do-gooders. This is about millions of talented people meeting critical needs and tackling urgent challenges, in organizations and society.

The same way we needed women to work during World War II. The same way we now need immigrants to work. We need older adults to work. As primary, secondary and special education teachers. As nurses and home health aides. As nonprofit leaders and case managers and mentors. As entrepreneurs, both for-profit and nonprofit, creating their own opportunities.

I'll give two quick examples of how to apply the Encore Equation, both of which I think qualify as big ideas, so it's good to get out in front of them.

In health care: Healthy people cost less.

There's a huge push on to cut health care costs. That can either come from rationing and denials of treatment, or from keeping people healthier in the first place. The cost of treating diabetes and pre-diabetes is something like $200 billion a year. People who are pre-diabetic and reduce their weight by 5 percent cut their chances of developing diabetes by 60 percent. So UnitedHealth Care is paying the YMCA to run 16-week courses on diet and exercise — and will pay in part based on how much weight participants lose. “This will absolutely pay for itself,” a UnitedHealth executive told The New York Times.

There’s a solid business case for all kinds of preventive health navigators or wellness coaches. Those are perfect encore careers.

In green jobs: Clean energy will be cheaper than fossil fuels, particularly coal.

That statement is partly a bet on policy and whether they ever manage to put a price on carbon. But either way, if we do actually want to move on climate change before it's too late, it’s going to take a huge, staggering amount of work — we're talking about retrofitting the entire economy.

It’s not just insulation crews or solar installers, but finance people and marketers and project managers and neighborhood block captains.

So, again, this isn’t about creating jobs for boomers. It’s about innovation, entrepreneurship and commitment — solving problems and leaving our kids a better world.

There’s nothing inevitable about that. But as the management guru Peter Drucker said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

This article is adapted from comments by David Bank, a vice president of Civic Ventures, in a panel discussion, "What will the future look like," at Alumni Weekend at the University of California at Santa Cruz on April 17, 2010.

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