Posted on 30 December 2009
By Mark Miller
Pollster John Zogby posed this question last summer to 4,000 Americans: “What will be the historic legacy of Baby Boomers?” The responses were startling.
Forty-two percent said boomers had “ushered in an era of consumerism and self-indulgence.” Another group (27 percent) gave boomers credit for helping to “bring lasting change in social and cultural values and ending a war.” After that, the answers ranged from “nothing really special” to “other” or “not sure.” The loose translation: “Boomers might have done some good things back in the ’60s and ’70s, but where have you been lately?”
The Greatest Generation. . . the Silent Generation . . . And now, the Over-indulgent, Self-Centered Generation? It doesn’t sound too good–and it’s an unfairly harsh judgment, from my perspective. Still, many boomers are itching to re-write those poll results in the new decade just beginning.
Older boomers are hitting retirement age at a time when a changed economy means that all traditional bets are off. Even before the economic crisis began, many boomers already were refocusing their energies on second careers–and many are looking for work that will help them leave a positive legacy for future generations.
That trend has only intensified as the country faces intense, simultaneous crisis and upheaval–a depressed economy, national security and environmental threats, and the need to revamp our health care and education systems.
“The needs in the country and in our communities are more stark and present and in the news,” says John Gomperts, president of Civic Ventures, a non-profit think tank focused on civic engagement. “People are alert to the fact that there are serious problems, and they are concerned.”
Indeed, an AARP survey in 2008 [pdf file] found that only 20 percent of boomers and members of the Silent Generation–born during the Depression and World War II–believe they will leave the world in better condition than it was before, and 55 percent think they will leave the world in worse condition.
The more serious mood also is evident in the way Americans are behaving as consumers. Just before the holidays, the Wall Street Journal published an article describing a sea change from spendthrift spending patterns towards more saving. The Journal also noted research suggesting more socially-conscious consumer behavior, with one poll showing a 10 percentage point swing toward shopping for products for “social, political or environmental reasons.”
The rapid growth of volunteer activity also is significant. The rate of participation in volunteer work has hit a 30-year high point in recent years, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service, with a good deal of the growth fueled by midlife and older adult volunteers.
Civic Ventures research has found that 5.3 to 8.4 million people between the ages of 44 and 70 are doing work that combines income and personal meaning with social impact, and noted that half of the people in this age group not already doing “work with meaning” see it as their future career direction.
Thinking of making a “work with meaning” New Year’s resolution yourself? Civic Ventures recently published a free guide to getting started on encore careers that matter. The guide offers practical advice on topics like job hunting, financing career transitions and how to test a new field by volunteering or doing an adult internship.
“Until now, encore careers have been a do-it-yourself project,” says Marci Alboher, senior fellow at Civic Ventures. “But we have tracked a lot of pioneers who have done it successfully, and the guide reports back on what they have learned.”
Resources: RetirementRevised links to encore career resources.