Posted on 26 February 2013
By Mark Miller
I attended the annual Encore 2013 conference earlier this month, and it’s always a highlight on my calendar. Encore offers a great opportunity to hear from top thought leaders on the challenge of re-inventing careers at midlife, including the presentation of the Purpose Prize awards.
Marc Freedman, CEO of Encore.org, always is too busy to talk at the conference, so I caught up with him afterward by phone to ask five questions about the future of the Encore movement. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: We’re not far away from the tipping point – where we’ll have more people over age 60 than under 15. What’s that society going to look like? What will society need to do to adapt?
A: I think there are two clear routes. One is a version of the dystopian scenario we hear a lot about. If all these people moving into their sixties and seventies are pushed to the sidelines, they will become part of the dependency ratio we hear so much about. But there’s another possibility that works better for them and the country. That is to help them retool and reengage in ways that are personally meaningful and socially productive. It could turn the dependency ratio on its head and produce instead an abundance ratio. We’d have a wide group contributing to the well being of our economy and communities. We have to work hard to make it possible to achieve this much more uplifting option. And we need to do it not just for those at this juncture now but for younger generations, who will live even longer.
Q: The idea or working longer and retiring later is red-hot in Washington, but it’s all about cutting entitlement spending. How do you see encore fitting in, and what would you tell washington policymakers are the best ways to encourage and incent people to work longer?
A: It’s easy to see these ideas of retirement security and longer working lives as being in opposition to one another, but I don’t think they are. A longer working life is a route to greater economic security. But I think we‘re moving from a 20th century life/work pattern to one more suited to the 21st century – and it’s a wrenching transition.
If we’re all living longer and working longer, we’ll need to have a new pattern of work and leisure – an alternating series of chapters. Those who already are working longer and moving in the direction of work that is meaningful and productive offer us a glimpse of what the future will look like. They represent a life pattern that is more sustainable than trying to stretch and strain the 20th century model where we load up all the education in the first part, work like a dog and then have this payment of leisure.
Q: Are there policies the federal government should be pursuing to help encourage this transition?
A: There are lots of ways to help with process of retooling. The three areas I’d focus on are education, internships and financing.
We need better education options, more internship opportunities like our Encore Fellows program, and we need to help make this shift less expensive and more affordable through tax-advantaged savings options. We should offer greater flexibility on Social Security, so that you could take benefits for a year or two to finance a transition and stop benefits again at a later point.
Q: To what extent are encore careers being driven by career disruptions earlier in life due to our economy, which seems to be in a permanent state of volatility?
A: Encore.org focuses mainly on people in their fifties and sixties who are facing disruptions, but helping those people will also help us put in place needed mechanisms so that younger people experiencing disruptions will have a better time of it as they find the need to work longer. Many are having a hard time getting a foothold. We need to recognize that 21st century life will have multiple transitions, and it will be more of a do-it-yourself process.
Q: Encore gives an annual Purpose Prize award for best ideas and execution in social entrepreneurship. The idea, I’m sure, is to encourage people to develop similar ideas of their own, but the phrase “social entrepreneurship” probably intimidates a lot of people. Can you help them get over that?
A: The Purpose Prize honors social entrepreneurs who have had great success and in some cases started world-changing initiatives. But most people who go the entrepreneurial route at this stage of life are mom and pop operations – self employed or running something with a small number of people. There is a need to provide role models for them that are less grand than winners of the prize. Research we did a couple years ago shows that a quarter of the older population is interested in taking an entrepreneurial direction that provides a social benefit. That is an important trend that needs to be supported. The goal of the prize is to show a group of people doing their absolute best work at a point where you are supposed to be heading downhill. It challenges the idea that life rises to a high point at midlife and the rest is a sad tale of decline.
Q: We occasionally hear concern that older people working are effectively holding back younger people. Encore recently did a survey exploring attitudes of older workers toward younger counterparts. What did you find?
A: Opening possibilities to use your talent in the second half of life is by its very nature something older and younger people must support, because younger people will be at that same point themselves. and need to contribute and stay productive. in some ways, it’s comparable to the work women did in the sixties and seventies to break down barriers – because they needed to be part of contributing to society.
But I also think something else is going on. People working in the encore career arena are working to solve pressing social problems. At a time when social and environmental problems are getting worse, why would we want to discourage millions of people who want to dedicate themselves and their experience from contributing? It’s an all-hands-on-deck moment, and we can’t just draw on the skills of one generation.
Q: You’ve been working to turn encore careers from a cool niche idea into a mass movement. How’s that coming along?
A: I think we’re at a turning point now. So people who are entering their fifties and sixties not only want to have lives that continue to be meaningful and productive, but they want to work on creating opportunities for more of their peers. There is a critical mass of people who are willing to play a leadership role. That is enabling us at Encore.org to shift our efforts so that we are supporting them. It won’t work if it’s just a small band people at a non-profit organization like ours.
We want to have a core of 1,000 leaders in the encore movement, and and help support and catalyze key sectors of society where there is a latent but powerful natural interest in encore emerging. One example of that is financial services, where we have people starting to understand that there is a whole market of people who need help in encore transition. Religious and educational organizations also have a great deal of potential.
Further reading: A New Vision for Retirement: Productive and Meaningful. Blog post by Marc Freedman at the Harvard Business Review.