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.