Inventing a new phase of life

Marc Freedman

Marc Freedman

It was a huge treat to meet Marc Freedman this week when he was in London. At Agebomb’s event at NESTA, he talked about the paradox that longer lives – which are obviously a good thing – are also widely seen as a social disaster. In the US, as well as here, there are plenty of people ready to warn of impending conflict between the generations.

Marc described how his involvement with mentoring programmes started him thinking about the contributions that people over the age of 55 are capable of making. This has led him to spearhead a movement in the United States for Encore careers – demanding work in the public good in the second half of life. He suggested we need to invent a new phase of life to acknowledge that this is happening, much as adolescence was invented in the early twentieth century.

Funnily enough, the man who popularised the notion of adolescence, G. Stanley Hall, decided in the last years of his life that he should have focused instead on a different phase: when people have finished bringing up kids but aren’t anywhere near ready to die, the very stage we now need acknowledged and catered for.

So what should we call them, these people who face 10, 20, 30 more years of active life, yet who aren’t the young executives and midlife parents who form our presiding image of adulthood? Could we think of something active and aspirational; something that makes sense of what Marc called the ‘windfall of talent’ they represent?

G. Stanley Hall thought the phase should be called senescence, but that’s out now because it’s attracted too many connotations of decline. What’s needed is something that suggests potential.

Marc describes people in this phase – whatever we’re going to call it – as existing in an ‘identity void.’ They’re not taken seriously by the media, nor by the world of work. It’s not always easy for them to achieve the kinds of things they want to. Yet they have distinctive talents and aspirations. In his view, these come from a combination of their sense of mortality – that there’s only a limited time left to achieve; their recognition that it is nevertheless enough time to do something significant; and their consciousness that we are what survives of us – a kind of future-mindedness.

This collision of different senses of time, he argues, leads to an urgency to achieve, a new phase of innovation. People in this period of life have a distinctive purpose. Of course, stages of life are man-made (a friend of mine who works with Afghan refugees tells me Afghans have little sense of age and don’t celebrate birthdays). But this would be a useful invention at this point, because it would pave the way for and legitimise institutions to go with it – internships in socially useful occupations, for example, and MBAs targeted at the over 55s.

In the United States, the Purpose Prize, which Marc founded to recognise entrepreneurs over the age of 60 who are doing something for the public good, attracts 1500 applications a year. For many people in the first half of the twentieth century, this life stage is not about freedom from work, but freedom to work. These people are already here and they want work that is meaningful, rewarding, and has an eye on the long term. We really should find a way to recognise them.

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Agebomb to hold an event with Nesta in early October

Stop Press!Excellent news: the splendid Marc Freedman will be visiting London from San Francisco for two days in early October and has agreed to be the keynote speaker at an Agebomb event on the new old age, to be held in conjunction with Nesta on the morning of Tuesday October 5.

We will be looking at innovation to make the second half of life a success.

Marc spearheaded the creation of the Experience Corps, which gets older people working with schools and other youth organisations across the United States. He is an eloquent campaigner for Encore Careers – serious, socially useful work for people in the second half of life – and the founder of The Purpose Prize, which awards prizes of $100,000 and $50,000 to social innovators over the age of 55.

His new book, Shift, which will be published in January 2011, is about the transition of the boomer generation to a new stage of life.

Charlie Leadbeater, a leading thinker on social innovation, author of We-Think: The Power of Mass Creativity, and occasional guest blogger on Agebomb, is also a confirmed speaker. Other speakers will be unveiled soon.

Through its Age Unlimited programme, Nesta has done a good deal of work on the demands and ambitions of a different kind of older population, and this is will be an opportunity to think about what the second half of life will hold for a generation with entirely different, but very varied, expectations.

We will be asking: what is the point of retirement? Is there any real choice for people in how they spend the second half of their lives? If not, what would make a difference? Could Encore careers work in the UK? Can you change the second half of life without changing the first?

More news soon.

The key to the big society

David-Cameron-Nick-CleggSo Britain finally has a new government, after five days in which the news has mainly been that some men were going in or out of a building.  The policy positions of the first coalition since the second world war, hammered out in those meetings, will emerge over the coming days and weeks, but it seems likely that the Conservatives’ central proposal for domestic policy, the big society, will remain a significant part of the rhetoric.

Before the election, David Cameron described the big society as his party’s guiding philosophy. The Liberal Democrats share with their new Conservative colleagues a suspicion of the big state – which the big society is meant to render unnecessary – making this a relatively easy matter on which to collaborate. It is not yet clear, perhaps even to the Conservatives, quite what their big society amounts to. But one thing is plain: people over 50 will be crucial to its success. This could be, for older people, a big moment.

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