Aging boomers are ready for their Encore

For nearly 50 years, my dad worked for the same company, saved money when he could and kept his eyes on a prize — retirement by 65 with the opportunity to travel, play golf and spend time with my mom, the kids and grandkids. With an average life span not much over 70, the working men of his generation focused on spending their “golden years” relaxing after decades of hard work.

Today? Post-World-War-II baby boomers like me turn 65 at a dizzying rate of 10,000 per day. That rate will continue for the next 16 years or so, according to data from the Pew Research Center; and whether by choice or necessity many of us have no intention of retiring to the rocking chair, the golf course or the grandchildren’s playroom.

Blessed with better health, a longer life expectancy, the conviction that as “children of the ‘60s” we can do anything we set our minds to, and a commitment to work that serves the greater good, boomers could redefine aging with a new “life stage” that might aptly be called the “encore.”

This year, I have a fellowship from a national non-profit organization whose mission is to promote “second acts for the greater good.” In other words, that people in the baby boomer age group—and all of those who are lucky enough to reach it in the future — can make significant contributions toward solving pressing social problems at the local, state, national and international levels.

In my work as one of’s 15 Encore Innovation Fellows this year, I’ve learned a lot of things, including:

  • In the U.S. today, nine million people over 50 are working in Encore careers that give personal fulfillment, social impact and, in some but not all cases, income.
  • At least 31 million more Americans would like to be engaged in social-impact work.
  • In our state, as in others, there’s an abundance of need for the energy, experience, wisdom, and resources of people over 50. Imagine, for example, what a few thousand Encore Michiganians could do to improve the early childhood experience of our state’s children between birth and 8. Or consider that, according to the Michigan Nonprofit Association, the state’s nonprofit sector is growing, and the Encore group can support that growth. Or consider that in some of our private sector businesses, Encores have become important to knowledge transfer, training and development of junior staff.
  • A critical challenge—and not the only one—to maximizing the potential of this first “Encore” generation is finding ways to link the supply of Encores with the need or demand for what they can offer.
  • Another is dispelling the notion that if older people continue to work, it means taking jobs away from younger ones.

Creating the link between supply and need or demand depends on raising awareness of the tremendous potential of the Encore population, and also on receptiveness of for-profit, nonprofit and governmental organizations and employers to engaging older talent. Even with awareness and receptiveness, I believe the “match” is not going to occur without assertive action from those who make up the “supply” and the same from those who have the “need.”

How might that action occur? The possibilities are endless; for example:

In Michigan, I’ve learned, more than 4,000 state board and commission appointments are made on a rotating basis, about 1,000 a year. An Encore resident should take a look at that list on the state’s website and step up with a self-nomination.

Detroit has countless critical needs—just take one, the Lean Processing Project. The city could put its Talent Office to work finding Encore citizens with expertise in the areas the city needs to improve.

A private sector employer could actively encourage its employees from date of hire to get involved in meaningful volunteer community or social impact work that can grow over time so that when employees leave, they have an established “runway” to rewarding Encore contributions.

As to dispelling the notion that older people drain jobs from younger ones, some signs suggest quite the opposite, and would indicate that seniors are creating jobs. For example, the Kauffman Foundation studied entrepreneurial activity in the United States for more than a decade, from 1996 – 2007, and found that in every year, the 55-plus age group had a higher rate of entrepreneurial activity than the 20-34 age group. In another study, for the single year 2013, Kauffman found that a full 35 per cent of new businesses in the United States were created by entrepreneurs over 50.

The Encore potential is real, and so are the needs Encores can help to fill. What the baby boomers of my generation make of the opportunities and challenges can, as the people say, help people to “live, not just leave, a legacy” for generations to come.

Beverly Hall Burns is a principal at law firm of Miller Canfield Paddock & Stone, PLC, in Detroit, who she practices management-side labor law. Moving into her own “Encore plan,” she is transitioning to more social impact work.

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Thu, 04/10/2014 - 10:03am
Now I feel kind of guilty for not having any "good deed doer" plans for retirement.
Thu, 04/10/2014 - 10:34am
Don't knock the golf course. Walking with a pull cart is very good exercise. And with biking, kayaking, walking the neighborhood, and generally staying active, I feel no remorse for not having any "good deed doer" plans. Did my time when I worked and now enjoy my winters in FL and summers playing in MI.
Jane Iacobelli
Thu, 04/10/2014 - 2:38pm
If one starts volunteering young it is a major part of your life as you age. It makes me happy and fulfilled. I still golf, play bridge and walk.
Roger Rayle
Thu, 04/10/2014 - 4:06pm
I help networking and startup groups in my "extended transition*" (=semi-retirement) as a way to pay it forward and stay energized. * "Everyone is in transition... whether they know it or not."
Thu, 04/10/2014 - 9:45pm
Encore is a very encouraging sign of our changing culture. Thank you for this article. The encouragement to volunteer is another good thing. Though that encouragement seems to miss some of the barriers to making it happen. There are a few cultural and structural issue that form barriers to Ms. Hall Burns encouragement. I wonder how many volunteers Encore uses and the nature of the roles and responsibilities they have. It maybe enlightening to hear what those volunteers have experienced with other orgainzaitoins. There are too many organization that will have full time employees in highly responsible roles and they day they retire will no consider them for any role other than simple tasks. The tasks are valuable, but the knowledge and skills possessed by those volunteers maybe even more valuable in other roles with greater responsibilities. I recall a supervising nurse who after retiring was not allowed by that same hospital to do anything that would use her technical or superivoring knwoeldge and skills as a volunteer. When she became so frustrated with her lack of volunteer opportunities and applied for fulltime work at the hospital utilizing those same knwoledge and skills she was hire and returned to her previous fulltime role. This is not an exception, it is true for innumerable government and non-profits. I applaud Encore for its work an employement for the over 50. I wish they were interested in our communities and how they could benefit from those who are willing to share their special knowledge and skills as volunteers. I would asked Encore if it would be willing to explore how to use over 50 volunteers in our various government organizations. I believe that there are a great deal of speicilized knowledge and skills available that could enhance the government services and not displace any employees. I encourage Ms. Hall Burns to not spend too much time on trying to breakdown the idea that older people working/volunteering are taking away jobs and begin working on promoting the special knowledge and skills they possesand how it will expand the current capacities and quality of services that knowledge and skills can provide. It is nice to reference all the boards and committess, and the self nomination process, the reality is that the real process is not designed for that entering approach. It would be more practical to promote ad hoc committees and teams that would include the over 50 so they could use their knowledge and skills on current issues to allow them to demonstrate their value before becoming part of the pool of Board candidates. I am not sure from whom and how Encore was developed, what I would encourage them to do would be to create some ad hoc teams from a diverse group outside of Encore to address the issues Ms. Hall Burns mentions. And to have the those ad hoc teams make proposal to Encore. Ms. Hall Burns again thank you for the article, and the encouraging note you sounded. I hope you are looking beyond the current Encore and its successes to look at a wider spectrum for untilizing the knowledge and skills of over 50s.
Sun, 04/13/2014 - 9:08am
I fully agree with Duane's comment regarding the underutilization of work skills in volunteer jobs. My experience has been the same. I realize that basic labor is necessary to run projects, but often these jobs are organized inefficiently and with outdated materials. Volunteers are not allowed to help with project planning, so we slog through with the job. This is very uninspiring to a creative, dynamic worker.
Mon, 04/14/2014 - 10:21am
I am a member of Rotary and volunteer there. I have started a local group to help people with ideas (inventor's). And am doing other volunteer work. I find this personally rewarding and worth it to me at all levels. I encourage anybody that has not volunteered to at least try it - you may be surprised. This is my Encore!
Tue, 04/15/2014 - 3:14pm
Beverly... I think your article was spot on and (as always) very well written. Everyone should consider volunteering in some capacity. Our city, state and world needs all the help it can muster. Until you do, you can never understand how truly 'rich' you will be.
Thu, 04/17/2014 - 9:19am
Very well done and very thoughtful for us over the age of 55. I have been very fortunate throughout my life and have for years wondered how to 'give back'. Now I have a viable option. Thanks for the insight!