Encore Careers: A New Chapter of Life to Change the World

Dec 1, 2011, 3:53 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

Marc-Freedman Marc Freedman, Civic Ventures

Earlier this week, NewPublicHealth reported on the skyrocketing numbers of older adults in the U.S., and with extended healthy years come greater opportunity. Many adults are exploring an “encore career”—a new stage of life and work that combines necessary continued income with new meaning and a chance to create social change.

Today, 200 of the nation’s leading activists in the encore movement from education, business, philanthropy, government, nonprofits and media will come together at the Encore 2011 conference to move this concept forward. NewPublicHealth spoke with Marc Freedman, MBA, CEO and Founder of Civic Ventures, a nonprofit think tank that created Encore.org, about the encore movement.

NewPublicHealth: What is an encore career? What’s happening with encore careers, and why now?

Marc Freedman: We’re hearing more and more about people working longer, and for many people it’s an opportunity to consider a whole new chapter. A significant segment of the population, about 9 million people, have decided to launch a chapter that’s at the intersection of continued income, new meaning and social impact—a kind of practical idealism that we’ve been calling an “encore career.” We’re particularly interested in the decision by so many to focus on trying to help solve the problems of the world, in areas like health, the environment and education.

NPH: Who’s coming to this conference and what’s on tap?

Marc Freedman: For half a century, everything in society pointed people in the direction of disengagement, of moving to the sidelines, of having a leisure-filled, golden years retirement. But as people have been living longer and longer and as people are needing, in this economy, to be working longer and longer, the idea of 30 years of R&R is unaffordable for most individuals.

This is really a conference of activists—people who in one way or another are trying to make the encore career a new norm for the second half of life. They are rolling up their sleeves and trying to create an alternative—one that draws on peoples’ experiences and channels them to where they are needed most.

NPH: The Purpose Prize winners are at the center of this. How do you become a Purpose Prize winner?

Marc Freedman: We’ve for many years equated entrepreneurship with youth. But it turns out that there’s a largely undiscovered continent of social innovation on the other side of midlife—people who are taking their midlife experience and applying it to some of the big challenges of society. Six years ago, we decided to honor those people, to hold them up as examples of what is possible in this period.

They are solving problems in areas like climate change, rural poverty and community health both here and abroad and are really shaking up our notion of where the repositories of creativity and entrepreneurship in society reside. In the six years of the prize, we’ve received over 7,000 nominations and we now have a community of almost 400 Purpose Prize winners and fellows.

NPH: What are some of the highlights of the speakers at the conference?

Marc Freedman: The MC’s for the event where we award the Purpose Prizes are two remarkable women. One is Sherry Lansing, who was the first woman to lead a Hollywood studio, as the head of Paramount Pictures. Since retiring from Paramount, in her early 60’s, she’s focused on fighting cancer as one of the co-founders of Stand Up for Cancer, and has recently launched the Encore Career Institute. She’s working with UCLA to provide online continuing education courses, affordably, to boomers who want to have a second act in social change. So Sherry’s a host for the evening, and she’s also one of the panel of judges for the Purpose Prize. She’s joined by another judge, Jane Pauley, who is herself in an encore career. She’s been working with AARP to highlight people over 50 who are working to change the world. We’ll be giving an honorary prize named for John Gardner, our founding board chair at Civic Ventures, to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who retired from the court and has since started an organization called iCivics, working with computer game developers to help young people learn how the courts work and how government works so that they be better, more informed citizens.

NPH: The award in Gardner’s name will mean a lot. Tell us about him, and the legacy he left.

Marc Freedman: John was one of the founding members of Civic Ventures, and really an embodiment of the spirit of the Purpose Prize. He won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964 when he was already in his 50’s, had led the Carnegie Corporation and had reached that point when most people in that era started winding down. But for John, it was really the beginning of most of the work he’s remembered for today—his years leading HEW [Department of Health, Education and Welfare, later split into the Department of Education and Department of Health and Human Services] during the war on poverty, his creation of Common Cause, the White House Fellows Program and so many other important organizations. The winners [of the Purpose Prize] really are in many ways a reflection of the kind of life trajectory he led in that their greatest achievements will happen later in life.

NPH: That’s terrific—John really kicked off the movement. Now, let’s talk about you for a moment. You’ve just written The Big Shift and it’s really about “the nature of lives.” What is really behind this big shift?

Marc Freedman: The extension of life and of health in the past half-century, and I think that’s projected to continue in the 21st century, is forcing some qualitative changes in the nature of the life course. I think we need to rewrite the map of life so that we have a life course that fits a 21st century lifespan. Half of the children born today in the developed world are projected to see their hundredth birthday.

The life stages we currently take for granted are concoctions, they’re things we invented. My favorite example is adolescence, which was created a hundred years ago as we had a proliferation of young people who weren’t quite children or adults, and so we created a new category for them. We created high schools and Boys and Girls Clubs and child labor laws and new language—it took us 40 years.

The same thing is happening now as we have a proliferation of people who are no longer in midlife but aren’t really close to being old. We’ve been calling them the "young-old" or the "working retired." We really need to recognize this period as its own unique time. It’s a period that could be as long as midlife in duration, and it deserves its own goals, vision, language, social institutions, public policies, especially because arguably it constitutes the biggest group in society. The book in some ways is a plea for the creation of this new period as a way not only for individuals make sense of this opportunity in longevity and health but also for society to grapple with these vast demographic changes in so many people living so much longer.

NPH: In some real ways, this is beginning to happen. Tell us about the Intel Fellowships recently announced.

Marc Freedman: One of the real challenges from people moving into this period is how you get from what’s last to what’s next. A lot of people are being discouraged, especially in this economy, when they are spending time and money to find themselves in these do-it-yourself ventures. We’re interested in trying to create better pathways for people in something that’s really distinct from retirement and the stage of work. One of the things we need to do is to take some lessons from how we help young people find their way into adulthood, and that includes internships that help them experiment with new roles.

As I was writing The Big Shift, I was finding all of these people in their 50’s who were sneaking into internships meant for 18 to 20-year-olds. I thought it’s great that these people are improvising, but couldn’t we do better? That was the birth of the Encore Fellowship idea, which is essentially an internship for people in their 50’s and 60’s who want to have an encore career in social entrepreneurship. We piloted the first project in Silicon Valley with HP and the Packard Foundation, and now Intel is making it available for all of their retirement-eligible employees. It’s a six- to 12-month, half-time internship at a social change organization that’s designed to be a springboard to an encore career. Intel is making it part of their corporate-wide HR policies, which is really a breakthrough for all of those people who are at a time in life when they want to make a change.

NPH: What do you expect to happen as a result of this conference?

Marc Freedman: What’s been happening in the last five years is that the encore career has become a social trend. There are activities happening in higher education, in the corporate sector, in philanthropy, in the non-profit world—but they’ve been disparate. Even though they form a pattern, it’s not a movement. I think this conference can be the birth of that movement.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.