We’re a nation that will soon have more older people than young ones, and much of the popular media portrays this as a disaster story that goes something like this: Tens of millions of people, the single biggest group in society and a mighty political force, are about to dominate the scene. Overnight at age 60, they will become the elderly, pass out of the “working-age population,” become incompetent and incontinent, bankrupt the health care system, and vote for hefty increases in public spending on their retirement at the expense of everyone else.
We’ve stretched the average life span from 47 years in 1900 to nearly 80 today. But our imagination about the shape of those longer lives has lagged behind. Until not long ago, the 50s and 60s meant retirement, grandparenthood, senior discounts, and early-bird specials. Today there is a growing group of what I call “neither-nors.” Neither young nor old, neither ready to be retired nor able to afford it.
With big thinking, there is a chance to tap the talents and experience of the “baby boom” generation to solve longstanding social problems, from health care to homelessness, education to the environment. There is a chance to turn an older population into a new workforce for social change.
Some people, like Gary Maxworthy, are leading the way. As an idealistic young man, Maxworthy wanted to heed JFK’s call to service, but he already had a family to support. Instead of joining the Peace Corps, he launched a career in the food-distribution business, where he worked for more than 30 years.
As Maxworthy approached 60, his wife’s passing sent him into a period of soul-searching. He thought a lot about his old Peace Corps dream and the prospect of returning to it. In the end, he chose a more manageable domestic option, VISTA, part of the AmeriCorps national service program.
VISTA placed Maxworthy at the San Francisco Food Bank, where he discovered that—like food banks throughout the state of California—it was primarily giving out canned and processed food. It was all they could reliably deliver without food spoiling.
Maxworthy knew that California farmers were discarding tons of blemished but wholesome fruits and vegetables that were not up to supermarket standards. He launched Farm to Family, a program that in 2010 distributed more than 100 million pounds of fresh food to needy families in California.
Without question Maxworthy would have done a lot of good as a 22-year-old Peace Corps volunteer. But would he have been able to do something comparable to developing a system to distribute 100 million pounds of food to hungry people every year?
Never before have so many people, like Maxworthy, had so much life experience and the time and the capacity to do something significant with it. That’s the gift of longevity, the great potential payoff from all the progress we’ve made in extending lives.
But we won’t collect this experience dividend if we don’t move to recognize a new stage of life and create the kind of support people need to transition from the end of midlife to the beginning of their encore years. We need innovation.
How about inventing a gap year for grown-ups, a time when they could take a break, volunteer at home or abroad, or try a new career direction? A gap year—perhaps financed by a new tax-exempt savings vehicle we could call the Individual Purpose Account— could be a source of renewal for those embarking on a new career chapter.
What about midlife fellowships for those seeking roles that combine purpose with a paycheck? And why stop there: Let’s rethink our entire education system. Why cram so much learning into our teens and early 20s when we may want to move in a whole new direction in our 50s, 60s, and 70s?
By capitalizing on the unique assets of this vast population, we can make something extraordinary out of what so many think of as the leftover years. The right public policies could even provide new chances for social mobility. Today’s boomers are the first wave passing into this new period, which will soon be occupied by their longer-living children and grandchildren. In crafting our society to respond, we’ll open up options for younger people, who could then make life decisions with the expectation of more than one bite of the apple.
We all have a stake in this project. It’s our chance to turn the purported paradox of longevity—good for individuals, terrible for society —into a vast payoff for all generations, today and tomorrow.