The year is 2030.
The youngest baby boomers are midway through their sixties and starting to claim their Social Security benefits. And none too soon, since the coffers are nearly empty. As many boomers say with only a touch of irony, at least we got ours.
The fittest boomers still boast that eighty is the new sixty, but the rest of the country has gotten tired of footing the bill for their lengthy retirement. After a seemingly endless run, America is ready for the baby boom generation to finally get off the stage.
With more than one in four Americans over sixty in this future society, generational conflicts abound. Walkers outnumber trollers; nursing homes proliferate while schools close. The millennial generation, now mostly in their thirties and forties, have taken “extreme working” to new heights, pulling extra shifts to support not only truly needy children and the elderly, but also a vast cohort of “greedy geezers” spending one-third of their lives on subsidized vacation.
California, with the nation’s largest population of individuals over sixty, is the first to experience the ethnic division exacerbated by the aging crisis, as an older, largely white minority confronts a younger and largely Latino majority in the annual budget wars.
The nation owes a debt to the boomers, in the form of an intractable deficit pushing the country ever closer to default. Spending on boomers’ pensions and health care has replaced nearly all investments in the nation’s future. Not only children, but the environment and the economy are suffering from these lost opportunities. America, like its swelling population of pensioners, is visibly and painfully well past its prime.
As the 2032 presidential election nears, boomer political power is finally on the wane. But the generation’s legacy is assured. Boomers will be remembered as a self-absorbed, self-serving horde of overindulgers who used their votes and their dollars to push their own interests to the forefront, posterity be damned.
Now imagine a different scenario.
It’s still 2030. The boomers are indeed starting to leave the stage. But their encore has been a rousing one and the legacy they leave is far different.
The hysterical predictions of academic economists and assorted policy experts that once dominated discussion about the inevitable demographic trends have proven false. Few even remember concerns that the nation was headed to hell in a handbasket because of the huge population of “retiring” boomers. The feared “Gray2K” was a nonevent, just like Y2K before it.
Instead, there is a palpable sense of progress. Longevity, demography, human development, generational experience,fiscal imperatives, labor market dictates, and the particular historical moment combined to lead boomers to contribute longer and to use their education and experience in areas with jobs to offer, deeper meaning to confer, and broader social purposes to fulfill.
Faced with the practical necessity of extended working lives, boomers have made it a virtue, getting busy on their next chapters, second acts, or Careers 2.0. Some of the ills that seemed intractable at the beginning of the twenty-first century are fading, and others that appeared only to be worsening have made a 180° turn—all thanks to boomer labor power, now known as the “experience dividend.”
Now, nearly everyone looks forward to an encore career. The oldest members of the millennial generation, entering their fifties, are getting ready for their own second acts, and younger people clamor for “purpose-driven jobs” in the same way earlier generations embraced early retirement. The goal now is to be able to stop climbing the ladder and start making a difference, to trade money for meaning, to have the latitude to work on things that matter most.
Other nations, aging even faster than the United States, have imported the model as well. And no wonder, given the results:
- The boomers now function as the backbone of education, health care, nonprofits, the government, and other sectors essential to national well-being. This group is serving as the glue of society in much the way women carried a whole set of caring professions in the first half of the twentieth century. And the windfall has not just been in numbers and experience. Second-stage social entrepreneurship and innovation is being spearheaded by individuals bringing the accumulated skills from the first half of working life to the higher goals of their second acts.
- New rites of passage have emerged. The “gap year . . . or two” sabbatical between midlife and the encore career now fulfills at least some of the old fantasy of freedom in retirement, but it also serves as the transition to an encore. What is now known as “retirement” generally takes place in people’s mid-seventies, after their encore careers. Many work even longer. Social Security, far from being bankrupt, runs a modest surplus and is able to support the truly dependent, including the one-fifth of the older population—a number that continues to decline—who retire on disability by the age of sixty-five.
- Whole new industries and institutions service boomers on the path to new purpose. Meanwhile, financial services firms and other businesses have found considerable profit in helping individuals plan for their encore phase of work and contribution. Rather than saving in midlife to finance outright retirement in their late fifties or early to mid-sixties, with no income from work, people save in their middle years to buy an extra measure of freedom in their second half of work—for a time when they can swap income for impact.
- Spurred by enlightened public policy, encore careers provide a second chance at upward mobility for individuals from the less affluent end of the socioeconomic spectrum. New skills and increased education open new doors, reflecting the emerging reality that this chapter of work is not only about using your experience but also about acquiring new know-how. The experience economy” takes on an entirely new meaning in the process.
- As continued engagement and purpose serve as a fitness program for the body and the brain, life expectancy likewise continues to climb. More and more people seem to have a second, and even a third, “encore,” as their health and energy hold out well into their eighties and nineties.
Demography turns out not to be destiny after all, at least not in the way pundits once proclaimed. But those prognosticators were right in another way. The present situation feels inevitable, as natural as the oxygen in the air. The suggestion that it wasn’t always this way brings a quick response from those in this society of 2030: Not possible! We’d never survive writing off the most experienced segment of the population in the middle of their productive years. Haven’t things always been this way?
As the 2032 election approaches, political power is indeed passing to a new generation. But the boomer legacy is assured: A generation that set out to change the world surely did, by changing the way the world thought about the purpose of work and the definition of success, and by rolling up its sleeves and doing the work that needed to be done.
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