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Reinventing Old Age: The Good We Do When We Work Forever

By Paul Solman

Paul Solman’s piece exploring the contributions of older workers airs on The PBS NewsHour Wednesday.

We’ve been reporting on America’s aging workforce on the NewsHour over the past several months, covering the factory where the average age is 74, the graying of academia,
the senior entrepreneurship boom and long-term unemployment and age discrimination.

Wednesday we’re launching a companion online project called “New Adventures for Older Workers.” We look at the long-of-tooth labor force, of which I’m a member, using data visualizations, videos and more. We’d appreciate your feedback.

Our last broadcast story on the subject, which you can watch above, airs on Wednesday’s NewsHour. It demonstrates the benefits to the American economy when we work past the traditional age of throwing in the towel.

One of our key interviewees is Marc Freedman, author of “Encore: Finding Work that Matters in the Second Half of Life”
and “The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife.”

As usual, there was too little time to hear anyone at much length. But Freedman deserves the space. Here, then, is a bit more of what he had to say.

Marc Freedman: We’re trying to build a movement of people in the second half of life who want to use their time, talent and experience to be productive. We’ve given out Purpose Prizes for the past seven years, focused on people over the age of 60 who are doing their best work, their most creative work, at a time that used to be the leftover years . They’re tackling some of the biggest challenges in the world today and drawing on their previous experience to do that.

Paul Solman: How good, or maybe necessary, is it for the economy as a whole that people continue to work well into the years that used to be consigned to retirement?

Marc Freedman: I think we’re in the middle of restructuring what a life looks like in the context of much longer lives. You can’t just fold, spindle, stretch and mutilate a life course that was set up for 20th century life spans for 21st century spans that ultimately will last 100 years. You’ve got to rethink the whole process of education, of productivity, and balance the working lives over much longer periods of time as well as human capital development.

I think a lot of the projections for the future, a lot of the hand wringing could be characterized as scenario planning through the rear view mirror. Essentially we’re taking much longer lives, and this vast increase in people in their 60s, 70s and beyond, and assuming they’re going to live out a lifestyle that went with their parents’ generation. And I don’t think that’s going to be true. I think there’s resilience there: at an individual level people need to work longer; as a society we need to take the full productive potential of this population and use it in ways that will help everybody benefit.

Paul Solman: So then we’ll get economic growth out of it and receipts, continued receipts into Social Security and Medicare?

Marc Freedman: Yeah, the assumption’s been that we’ve got a small group of people in the middle who are going to be forced to support a much larger group of people in their 60s, 70s and beyond, but what if those people became an enormous engine of productivity and innovation? We could turn the dependency ratio into an abundancy ratio.

Paul Solman: And those people will be paying income taxes.

Marc Freedman: And they’d be setting a pattern for longer working lives that young people would soon come to inhabit. So this would be a benefit not just in the boomer retirement years, but for generations to come. These people who are having enormously, significant, meaningful, productive chapters in their 60s and 70s ultimately are gonna signal to young people that there’s more than one bite of the apple, that you don’t have to push all of your success into the early part of life, work like a maniac until you’re 50 and then have this endless balloon payment of leisure at the end. That there’s an opportunity to have two or three or even more chapters in your working lives, and they can build on each other or enable you to move in an entirely different direction. So I think it’s ultimately a comforting message to young people — realizing that they have a chance to sustain themselves economically at a period when they used to think they’d have to live off of their savings.

This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown — NewsHour’s blog of news and insight.

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