My husband Dick Shore spent a quarter of a century at the Department of Labor in Washington, DC and a short stent at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations before he declared he was ready to opt out of paid work altogether. We talked about what he would do. He didn’t play golf or bridge, wasn’t interested in a new hobby, and didn’t want another job. He coveted time to read and the flexibility to travel with me on business trips and vacations. But he also recognized he needed something to structure and occupy his time, a way to feel useful and to “give back.”
After considering various options, Dick reinvented himself as a volunteer, focusing on helping the next generation by teaching first-graders to read five mornings a week at a grade school down the street. Everyone was happy. One young girl called him “the most perfect person in the world,” and other children would shout “Hi, Dick!” as we walked in downtown Ithaca. Dick felt a real sense of purpose, saying this was “his best job ever.” When I accepted a position at the University of Minnesota, he quickly found a similar spot in Minneapolis’ Inter-district Downtown School, this time helping fifth-graders with math.
Dick’s encore portfolio—first to a new, different, and challenging part-time job at Cornell and then as a volunteer—are emblematic of what I see as a promising new life stage, coming after career-and family-building, but before the frailties we associate with old age.
After years of research at Cornell University and the University of Minnesota, I have come to see this as a new “encore” to conventional adulthood, a time of personal and social renewal. It is distinct from both full-time career employment and full-time retirement leisure, often encompassing several reinventions over time.
The bonus years of extended life expectancy are not coming at the end of life, adding to years of disability and decline, but rather, in the expanding period of health and vitality around the 60s and 70s, but coming earlier or later for some. The new longevity is advantageous to individuals, but costly to society. Though some envision the solution as moving back the retirement clock — forcing the delay of career exits by even further postponing the age of Social Security eligibility — I, like Marc Freedman, founder of encore.org, see this new life stage as a potential windfall for individuals and for society.
The new longevity is advantageous to individuals, but costly to society.
Despite the uncertainties and ambiguities of this new encore adult stage, many Boomers—the largest, most educated cohort in history until their children, the Millennials, came along—feel on the edge of conventional adult roles but are not yet done. People in this new stage are not young, but they are not old either, as the infirmities associated with being “elderly” are postponed. Growing numbers of Boomers are indeed resetting their lives and their identities, making them up as they go. However, others are not so fortunate, lacking the opportunities, networks, and resources to customize the encores they may want.
To date, encore adulthood is mostly an individual project. There are no blueprints, no guideposts. Most government programs and organizational practices continue to operate under a very outdated linear lockstep template of first learning, then working for advancement or at least security, then retiring once, all at once. Consider universities — focusing almost exclusively on 18-22 year-olds. Or phrases like “prime age” workers, effectively cutting off a growing group of Boomers who may want to leave their career jobs but not for a rocking chair.
What many want, but can’t always find, are chances to reset the time clocks of their lives, often in the form of different combinations of flexible, frequently less-than-full-time work, volunteering, learning, caring, and leisure, including more healthy lifestyles.
Policy developments that enable such time shifts, like making it easier to cut back working hours, creating more flexible, meaningful part-time, part-year jobs, making true life-long learning the center of higher education, and fashioning public and social sector opportunities to help others and promote the greater good, could open up new and satisfying life pathways. Many Boomers — the oldest turning 71 this year — don’t want to lean into their current jobs or step into the sidelines of society. Rather, they want to explore new ways of engaging with the world and making a difference.
Featured image credit: people sitting resting waiting by Skitterphoto. Public domain via Pixabay.