The longevity revolution has arrived. And with it, a super-aging surge (people 80+) and the most age-diverse era in human history. The Silent Generation and Baby Boomers have paved the way to a more vibrant and vital senior adulthood, and now Gen-Xers and even Millennials are embracing middle age and the idea that what lies ahead may be the most productive, exciting, and essential years of life.
The nonprofit organization formerly known as Encore.org helped enhance the lives and maximize the talents of people over 50. Now, they’ve rebranded as CoGenerate.org, dedicated to bridging generational divides because it will take all of us, including Gen Z and soon Alphas, to create a better future. We spoke with CoGenerate Co-CEOs Marc Freedman and Eunice Lin Nichols to discuss careers, civic engagement, and more.
Beyond gold-watch retirement and The Golden Girls
The world has changed in extraordinary ways, and so have we.
Between just 1920 and 2020, the average human life span doubled.
In a stunning demographic shift, by 2050, people 65 and older will make up nearly 40% of the population in parts of East Asia and Europe. People 65 years and older already account for 30% of Japan’s population.
“It’s a staggering transformation. As a result, both of increased longevity and lower birth rates,” says Freedman, adding traditional retirement isn’t dead, but it’s being displaced by a new phase of work between midlife and anything resembling traditional retirement in the lives of those who don’t want to retire or financially can’t. “Retirement was designed for when people barely made it to their sixties. And our cultural conceptions of that period of life are outdated, too.”
Indeed, in the 1980s sitcom The Golden Girls, characters Blanche, Dorothy, and Rose started at the mere ages of 53, 54, and 55. Edith and Archie Bunker from “All in the Family” began as characters in their 40s!
Outdated ideas are already breaking down. But Freedman thinks there’s a pressing need to rethink aging. To cultivate a new set of cultural ideas, public policies, and social institutions, making it easier for people interested in continuing to contribute into their 60s, 70s, 80s, and beyond.
This mission has comprised Freedman’s life’s work. When in his 30s (he’s now in his 60s), he partnered with John Gardner, the former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, founder of Common Cause, and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to repair the loneliness and boredom of retirement and replace it with a reason to get up in the morning. They developed ideas to mobilize older Americans’ time, talent, and experience.
Freedman went on to found Encore.org. He also co-created Experience Corps, the Purpose Prize, and Encore Fellowships. He is the Founder of CoGenerate and author of many books, including How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations.
“Our founding project Experience Corps was focused on mobilizing older people to help children in low-income schools read at grade level by the third grade,” says Freedman, adding that research on this project by Johns Hopkins Medical School showed enormous benefits to the young people in reading and other school performance. And for the older people in the program, it reversed preconditions of dementia, alleviated loneliness, increased activity, and more. AARP, the biggest organization in the world focused on aging, adopted the program. “It’s in about two dozen cities around the country now.”
He likens Experience Corps to the Peace Corps, where primarily young people “serve for a year or two after high school or college before moving into work and other roles…People participate in Experience Corps after finishing their midlife chapter and tend to stay for at least a decade in the program…They essentially had a second act in Experience Corps that wasn’t as long as their midlife career but was as significant and purposeful,” says Freedman.
“A second act for the greater good at the intersection of passion, purpose, and a paycheck. Experience Corps members also receive a stipend.”
The Purpose Prize: The MacArthur “Genius” Award for seniors
“40 under 40”, “30 under 30”, and “21 under 21” lists are ubiquitous, but they belie the fact that you can do great things at any stage of life.
“We created the Purpose Prize [now the AARP Purpose Prize] to show that older people could not only contribute in later life, but they could be a source of innovation, entrepreneurship, and creativity usually associated with young people eating ramen noodles in their dorm room, not with people with gray hair,” says Freedman. “It’s the opposite of a lifetime achievement award.”
Eunice Lin Nichols concurs. She landed in the San Francisco Bay area at the height of a tech boom. “I had a very clear picture in my head of who was an entrepreneur and who was at the cutting edge of innovation. And it was the kid in the garage coming up with the next technology. And then, I had a chance to run the Purpose Prize. Thousands of nominations and applications came in from people over 50 whose best work was still ahead of them. Ideas to transform the world,” says Nichols. NPR likened the Purpose Prize to MacArthur “genius” award.
“There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age.”
Building encore careers
Opportunities in the Encore/CoGenerate ecosystem also include the Encore Network, a network of programs around the country promoting and enabling encore careers. And the Encore Fellows Program. “It is essentially a gap year for grownups. It’s a thousand-hour (either halftime for a year or full-time for six months) fellowship where people take their midlife experience, usually from the private sector, and translate it to an NGO,” says Freedman. “So, you might be working in marketing at Intel or HP or IBM, and you get placed in the Boys and Girls Clubs, but you’re doing marketing work there. So, it’s at the intersection of experience and adventure. You’re not thrown in being told to reinvent yourself; you’re actually using what you learned from your midlife work, but it’s in a new setting with new colleagues with a different sense of purpose.”
If you value older people’s work, “You should pay for it in many situations,” says Freedman. “But we also haven’t done nearly enough to help older people invest in building their skills.”
Possible solutions include “individual purpose accounts where people could invest, ideally in a tax-advantaged way, in their future education…I’d love to see some grand policy,” says Freedman. Another idea, “People taking an early year of social security to go back to school or even do a year of service…It could be like a GI Bill for older people where you’re essentially voucher-izing people to go back to school. It would change the nature of higher education if millions and millions of older people had this money for education.”
Freedman cites a wave of higher education committed to the future of older people, including Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative, Stanford University Distinguished Careers Institute, University of Notre Dame: Inspired Leadership Initiative, University of Texas at Austin: TOWER Fellows Program, University of Washington Encore, UConn’s Encore Connecticut, Union Theological Seminary Encore Transition Program, and others. “It’s a whole new chapter of education.”