PSA to fellow Millennials: We’ll get old someday too

Let’s embrace aging and work to reshape what it means, rather than waiting until we’re older when more of the playbook’s been written.

Despite our generation’s present ambivalence towards it, the paradigms of aging and what we think of as retirement are undergoing massive changes. I recently got an inside look into what’s happening and thought I’d share a few observations about what promising initiatives are already underway. The point of writing this — be part of figuring out how we can work more constructively across generations, now and in the future.

By way of background, earlier this month I attended a conference in San Francisco hosted by the non-profit Encore. Encore is a purpose-driven non-profit working to redefine what life looks like after age 50, and support “second acts for the greater good.” I shared a number of conversations with driven and insightful Baby Boomers, spoke on a panel about integrating Gen X and Millennials into the encore movement, heard about Michael Eisner’s push to drive more intergenerational collaboration at his foundation, and led a session about how technology is changing retirement finance for Millennials and is on the cusp of doing the same for Boomers.

I had three takeaways from the conference relevant to Millennials that I’d like to share.

1. There is reason to believe that intergenerational disdain is overhyped

It’s always more of an attention grabber to write about the things that drive generations apart rather than what we share in common. One example: An explainer late last year from Vox about how to navigate the intergenerational divide at the Thanksgiving table went viral (and was soon followed by a pretty apt takedown of Millennials from the Wall Street Journal). But just this week, Chris Farrell of Next Avenue noted that this ageism/reverse ageism phenomenon, although often cited, is perhaps exaggerated.

That’s not to say that there aren’t genuine intergenerational obstacles to overcome. Look no further than recent presidential primary results for evidence of that. And anyone that has worked on an intergenerational team in the workforce can attest that there’s a clear learning curve.

But let me make a painfully obvious point. We’ll all die someday, which means that if we’re lucky enough, we’ll get old someday too. There’s a lot happening to redefine what aging means, but it’s largely happening without input from younger Americans. That’s natural, but also unfortunate. If Millennials have different ambitions for what life after 50 should look like, we should engage in the debate now. Older Americans are listening.

2. Intergenerational collaboration works

The Eisner Foundation, funded by former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, is now solely deploying its capital towards purposes that focus on intergenerational collaboration. I’d never really thought about it, but so many of our social challenges can be better solved by the ingenuity, skill, and steadfastness of youth coupled with the wisdom and experience of age. The research that backs this up is substantial.

Americans over 50 represent a skilled source of labor that can improve our educational system, reduce recidivism, improve our health, and solve many other important issues. Our most critical social problems span generations, so those working to solve them should as well. The key to creating a better plan around aging will probably be solved through an intergenerational collaboration as well.

3. Retirement is a very outdated notion

It’s hard to decide which is the chicken and which the egg, but the truth is that both the societal norms and the social safety net that older Americans face differ significantly from reality. More Americans are working later in life, even though our Social Security system, in some ways, has perversely created a disincentive to do so. And the stylized idea of retirement (holding hands as the sun sets on a Florida beach) doesn’t represent how the vast majority of Americans will or want to grow old. It was clear from attending the Encore conference that more Americans are looking for purpose and engagement in their second careers, not a break.

Changing the stereotypes surrounding aging is at the crux of the encore movement. The motivation for Boomers to find a meaningful pursuit in their second act matters for them because it can provide personal fulfillment, an income stream, and a mental health boost. But it’s also really important for our progress as a society. It’s possible that never again in American history will people live so long after they leave a traditional job, while still having a pretty massive social safety net intact.

So where does this leave us?

The sense that older Americans want to put their skills to use is palpable. The encore movement wants to redefine aging by doing just that. Addressing this issue is important work for Boomers (who will be immediately affected), but also for future generations. Two obvious problems that the encore movement is facing along the way:

  1. How to make it more diverse
  2. How to make it more scalable

Neither challenge will be easy to solve.

Addressing diversity challenges

Participants in the encore movement today are overwhelmingly white, well-educated, and well-off. Turning the movement into a big tent is something discussed openly. A desire to be more inclusive is a huge step towards eventually realizing that goal. Expanding the common usage of an encore career towards a more needs-based choice (rather than just an elective one) could go a long way as well.

Addressing scalability challenges

Enthusiasm is one important feature that helps spread the word. The quality of early adopters as thought leaders is another. And demographic trends are another important part. All three of these ingredients now exist in my estimation. So what’s missing? In my opinion, it’s a microphone that carries ideas beyond a conference and out into the world. In some ways, this is already happening, but it seems like more can be done.

Startups?

Frankly, I think this is a place where startups can help. In areas like home healthcare, retirement spending, job retraining, and volunteer matching services, vast untapped opportunities seem to exist. Startups created by older Americans are working to solve these problems, but increasingly startups created by Millennials are as well.

You could tell at the conference that there was a real bias for action. Conferences can be great networking events, but all too often are filled with lofty ideals and unmet platitudes. Not so here and that’s encouraging. Older Americans are ready to get to work. As a startup founder, feel free to accuse me of being a hammer in search of a nail, but I think this is one opportunity where emerging startups can realize a double bottom line impact.

The opportunities and challenges of aging affect us all. If we know intergenerational collaboration works, let’s continue building a movement.

Note: A special thanks to the many people I engaged in thoughtful discussion with on these and other topics at #encore2016, including Larry Alei, Don Blandin, Nancy Collamer, Rich Eisenberg, Joan Fernandez, Ward Greene, Kerry Hannon, Michael Haubrich, Jody Holtzman, Paul Irving, Ann MacDougall, Sarah McKinney, Mark Miller, Roberta Ryan, and others.