Millennials may be the current obsession of business and the media, but the older generation isn’t going anywhere soon. A 2014 Census report notes that the percentage of the population above 65 years old will double by the year 2050.
“In many instances, that’s been portrayed as a problem,” says Marci Alboher, vice president of marketing and communications at Encore.org.
But Alboher—a writer, speaker, and community organizer—wants to turn that perception on its head. Her organization is helping seasoned professionals discover what’s really meaningful for them—and for the world—in their later years.
“There are many, many people who are trying to reframe aging,” Alboher says from her office in WeWork Soho West. “Our specific take on it is: ‘How do we leverage the talent in our aging population to solve social problems?’”
Founded as Civic Ventures in 1998, Encore’s mission is to build “a movement to tap the skills and experience of those in midlife and beyond to improve communities and the world.”
Alboher says that the nonprofit organization works in three ways: by raising awareness in the media; through programs that connect people and opportunities; and through events that foster leadership in the movement.
One of the organization’s major successes is the Encore Fellowship, which creates partnerships that connect individuals nearing traditional retirement age to opportunities with nonprofits.
“We call it an internship for Baby Boomers,” Alboher says.
Encore Fellows may have a lifetime of experience in their chosen discipline, she says. But they may have little experience or knowledge in the nonprofit or social sector.
“They’re learning,” says Alboher, “and they’re these storehouses of talent at the same time, but they’re humble.”
Encore hosts a national conference, last held in San Francisco in 2016, along with smaller events nationally and globally.
The organization also curates the Encore Network, which seeks to help organizations learn about and connect to “encore talent”: individuals seeking new opportunities later in life.
“Our target audience,” Alboher says, “is leaders in all sectors who may be incubating programs of their own.”
Baby Boomers change the rules
As the Baby Boomer generation enters retirement age, many people see a coming crisis. But Encore is betting that the solution, at least in the United States, might be found in the very thing that aging people have been conditioned to leave behind: work.
According to a Brookings Institution analysis, “phased-retirement”—in which people stay in the workforce longer, even part-time—would have the effect of extending the tax contributions of older individuals, bolstering social and medical benefit programs and adding to overall economic productivity.
But for Encore, the question is not even so much about what to do with our aging workers. The question is: what do our aging workers do with themselves?
In his book, The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife, Encore founder Marc Freedman notes that our notions of both retirement age and what constitutes retirement are due for an overhaul.
The original retirement age of 65 was established in 1935. Freedman notes that it was considered, at the time, to be the age at which people were “beyond productivity” based on assessments of mortality risk.
But increasingly, this is not the case. In addition to the general age demographic shift associated with aging Baby Boomers, life expectancy is going up, which means that people are remaining productive later in life.
“We’re headed not toward the ‘aging society’ as is commonly conceived,” Freedman writes. “We’re instead witnessing an extraordinary explosion of the population between the middle years and late life.”
Freedman says that clichés like “sixty is the new forty” don’t capture the changes that are taking place.
“Sixty is not the new forty, fifty, or eighty—it’s the new sixty,” Freedman writes. This group…is neither old nor young nor some oxymoronic coupling of the two. They promise something new entirely.”
Encore’s key message is that this “new” population segment has energy, ideas, and tremendous experience to contribute. Not only will our society and our economy will benefit, people themselves will benefit from greater well-being, associated with social connection and sense of purpose.
Young people can learn, too.
Alboher notes that creating opportunities and rebuilding healthy relationships across generations can start in the workplace, in places like WeWork.
“The important thing is that we need to run into each other more often,” she says. “We need to make sure our workplaces and our living situations aren’t segregated.”
“You’re not going to hear us get excited about retirement communities, because age-segregated places are these artificial environments where you don’t bump into people in other parts of the life course.”
She also adds that respect needs to run both ways. Young people should regain appreciation for what hotelier and author Chip Conley calls “Modern Elders.”
But it’s also important, says Alboher, “that older people value what younger people bring.”
“We need to be allies,” she says. “To quote one of my heroes, Ashton Applewhite, ‘We’re all future old people.'”