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Virtue of working longer

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Ellen Goodman
March 19, 2009
— Let me see if I have it right:

Older Americans ought to keep working in order to lighten the burden of Social Security and assorted benefits on younger generations.


Older Americans ought to retire in order to make room for younger generations with their noses pressed to the closed window of the job market.


There you go. If this is not the most mixed message to come out of this economic disaster, it will do for a start. The conflict between boomers and their offspring that was first ballyhooed in the 1990s seems to have re-emerged in new shapes and sounds all over depressed and recessed America.


So we now have studies such as the one from Northeastern University warning that “We have steadily increased the ranks of the employed with older workers and thrown the young out in the cold.” And we have warnings from economists about the effects of the huge transfer of income from younger workers to older retirees. As Newsweek’s Robert Samuelson put it, “Generational tension, and maybe generational war, is an inevitable part of the Age of Obama.”


What exactly is going on here? And is there any way for elders to be peacemakers?


It is absolutely true that in the last 15 years, Americans began to work longer. Changes in Social Security encouraged it, as did longevity, as did, well, attitudes. Now the implosion of the stock market and the descent of 401(k)s into 201(k)s have put retirement somewhere over the rainbow.


You find stories in every sector of the older population. People who were ready to leave are hanging on to the jobs that other people expected to fill and so on down the line, freezing the job market in place. Older workers who lost their jobs face discrimination getting new ones. People coming out of retirement are searching for any job at all. I tip my hat to the chivalrous foodie bagging my groceries.


Meanwhile, the folks revving up generational conflict overlook the fact that most of us do not live or think in age cohort groups. We belong to families. If public money is transferred upward from younger workers to older retirees, private money flows downward from older parents to adult children and grandchildren. In this economy, some older workers are clinging on to their jobs to keep the younger unemployed members of their own families afloat.


But if the downturn comes with the seeds of generational conflict over jobs, it also carries packets of social change. There is a chance for the boomer generation to make a virtue—or a revolution—out of the necessity of working longer.


We already know that a growing corps of people in their 50s and 60s are more interested in renewal than retirement. Marc Freedman of Civic Ventures talks about “encore careers” for those who want to bow out of their midlife careers and move into work with social value.


Now, he says hopefully, “The one benefit of this economic crisis is to drive home the reality that longer working lives are going to be necessary and desirable. If we can give people a sense that contributing longer is not another set of years at the grindstone but an opportunity to do something they can feel proud of, we’ll have accomplished something significant.”


That’s still a big if. So far, there’s been little help making the transition. But one innovative idea would make national service an onramp for encore careers. The bipartisan Serve America Act coming to the Senate floor next week not only expands AmeriCorps with its young and old population but provides model fellowships in 50 states that would help adults older than 55 enter new areas where they’re needed, such as education or the environment.


As Freedman says, we are just beginning.


“We’ve had this half-century aimed at getting people out of the labor market. It was a vision of the American Dream focused on the golden years. Now we need to come up with an equally compelling image that encourages people to work longer and directs them to areas most in need of talent.”


It’s not surprising that this job falls to the baby boomers. The social-change generation led this country to think differently about race and gender. There is time and energy enough for the “youth” generation to make America think differently about age.


So, generational conflict? Not necessarily. Instead of being competitors, we can be mentors in the changing business of aging.


Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe. Her e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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