Reflections on Late Style: Jim Emerman

Encore.org “is building a movement to tap the skills and experience of those in midlife and beyond to improve communities and the world.” Read more about the organization at Encore.org
It now becomes what you can contribute to the community, to others, to the world.”

While the timing and characteristics of late style can be hard to pin down and identify, it is a widespread phenomenon that is reflected across a range of disciplines. This blog series, examining the ways in which people experience this phase in their life, led us to Jim Emerman, Senior Vice President of Encore.org, whose mission is to advance second acts for the greater good. Emerman is passionate about helping older people answer the question, “what comes next?

Jim Emerman, Executive Vice President of Encore.org

Encore.org aims to change the dominant paradigm about people age 50+ to one that sees them as a “vital source of talent to benefit society.” This involves research, sharing stories, networking and connecting, and celebrating the work of mature social innovators through their Purpose Prize (now housed at AARP).

Rethinking Retirement

The idea of retirement as a perpetual vacation is relatively new. Emerman explains, “an institution like retirement, created for the 20th century, isn’t holding up anymore. Partly because people are living considerably longer…and they are not at the point physically where they need to stop working, or being creative, or being engaged. And partly because the idea of a second childhood in which playing or leisure is the primary defining feature seems somewhat barren spiritually, mentally, and socially. People have a lot that they can still contribute. They have reached the point of mastery and in some ways their best work could still be ahead of them.”

Emerman goes on, “The more we talk to people, the more clear it is to them that a traditional retirement, assuming they can afford it, doesn’t hold the same appeal.”

Embracing A Second Act

Encore.org has interviewed scores of people who are looking to discover their “second act.” Emerman believes this movement to stay engaged emerges from a human desire to do something meaningful and lasting — something with impact that extends beyond oneself.

Emerman continues, “Purpose Beyond the Self is another way of talking about this. It now becomes what you can contribute to the community, to others, to the world. That might be a creative pursuit, or might be taking what you know and figuring out how to apply it to solve a persistent problem in your community.”

PCMS Late Style Profiles: Top L to R: Bruce Metcalf (jeweler); Robin Black (author); Terell Stafford (jazz musician/educator); Bottom L to R: Christoph Wolff (musicologist); Tom McCarthy (actor); Malcolm Wright (ceramic artist)

An Unyielding Passion

This idea of harnessing passion to solve problems is one of the significant commonalities between people who are successfully contributing to the greater good of society in their later years.

Emerman highlights a study co-led with researchers from Claremont University that looked at the various paths that led people to their “encores”. Interestingly, nearly all participants found an issue they were deeply passionate about, often in the form of a problem in their community that needed to be solved.

Emerman explains that many of these leaders “were already doing something in the social impact area…and took a new way of approaching it because they had less to lose and were ready to strike off in a new direction. Others may have stumbled upon a problem in their local communities and they applied a skill they had mastered in a previous sector in a new way.” Regardless of how people came to discover the problem they wanted to solve, the passion they share is undeniable.

Another study with researchers from Boston College measured this passion in terms of levels of engagement. Emerman describes how the study revealed that participants “were incredibly engaged from the moment they woke up until they went to sleep…they would often say things like ‘this is what gives my life meaning’, or ‘this is the greatest work I’ve ever done.’ The level of engagement and the passion about their work, and the extent to which they were passing this on to the people they were working with, was off the charts.”

PCMS Late Style Profiles: L to R: Emily Brown (visual artist); Judith Schaechter (stained glass artist); Peter and Carol Schreck (therapists)

Humble, Risk-Taking, Rabble-Rousers

In addition to passion, there are other characteristics shared by this group of successful “second act” leaders. According to Emerman, “many of them are extremely humble. They are past the point where they have something to prove and that really comes through in the way they present themselves and how they talk about it….Many highlight the success of the whole organization [over their individual success]…they really don’t want to be self-promoting.”

They were also less risk-averse. Emerman says that many participants would say things like, “I’m at the stage where I’m not afraid of failing. I felt like I could risk it because I’ve already achieved mastery or success and I was able to experiment and try something new.

And lastly there was a bit of a contrarian, “rabble-rousing” aspect to their personalities. Emerman shared that at one conference for Purpose Prize winners, a participant “stood up and said ‘we are all trouble makers…We see a problem and we won’t rest until its solved. We are relentless in the pursuit of solving these problems’.”

PCMS Late Style Profiles:Top L to R: Jane Golden (mural arts); Rev. Dr. Wilson Goode (former Mayor of Philadelphia); Cecil Baker (architect) Bottom L to R: Milton Glaser (graphic designer); Elizabeth Streb (choreographer); Larry Gold (music producer/arranger)

Encore.org’s findings are echoed in the late style profiles we have been publishing on this blog. We have seen the humility of Bill Siemering, Milton Glaser, and Larry Gold; the relentless pursuit of discovery and risk-taking lived out by Elizabeth Streb and Jane Golden; the willingness to reinvent and explore new facets of themselves and their craft through Cecil Baker, Terell Stafford, and Wilson Goode; and the contrarian problem solving gifts of Bruce Metcalf, Malcolm Wright, and Judith Schaechter.

But perhaps above all, it is the deep passion for what they do, and the ability to share it with the world, that connects all of these late style masters. Through their art and leadership, they embody Encore.org’s goal of “creating a better future for future generations.”


The Profiles of Late Style blog series is part of the Departure and Discovery Project led by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society which is supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. Over the next few months, we will be featuring weekly stories that explore a whole range of perspectives on late style and its impact as an altogether universal human experience.