The rise of the Boomer Renaissance

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You already know that a number of economic dynamics are forcing aging boomers to entirely rethink retirement and stay in the workforce far longer than they had expected to. And, of course, you know that our longer lifespans have all but obliterated traditional thinking about when it’s time to call it quits.

But what is less apparent is the way these trend lines, coupled with powerful cultural, social and psychological determinants, are fundamentally altering the way older people define and approach work. Aging boomers are now exploring creative and self-driven ways to redirect their work lives, tapping into a rich reservoir of possibilities made attractive and compelling by need.

In 2014, we will see growing evidence of the resulting Boomer Renaissance in the form of self-guided entrepreneurship that will alchemize commerce, survival and self-actualization into a new world- and self- view. The signs won’t be immediately apparent; they will come in subtle waves. But as 2014 unfolds, the transition to an entrepreneurial-based environment for older workers, something that has been steadily building over recent years, comes into full force.

By no means does this evolving trend minimize the challenges boomers around the globe will face. As the Associated Press reported at the end of 2013:

A global retirement crisis is bearing down on workers of all ages…Spawned years before the Great Recession and the 2008 financial meltdown, the crisis was significantly worsened by those twin traumas. It will play out for decades, and its consequences will be far-reaching.

Many people will be forced to work well past the traditional retirement age of 65. Living standards will fall and poverty rates will rise for the elderly in wealthy countries that built safety nets for seniors after World War II. In developing countries, people’s rising expectations will be frustrated if governments can’t afford retirement systems to replace the tradition of children caring for aging parents.

But for a growing number of people in their 50s, 60s and older, the pending crisis is not only breathing new life into their efforts to survive, but allowing them to do so with a greater sense of purpose and fulfillment.

Why now?

The U.S. Department of Labor expects that 25 percent of the work force will be 55 or older by 2020, when the population of those aged 65 years and over will reach 55 million. That’s a 36 percent increase for the decade, according to U.S. Census data.

Older workers, aged 55 to 64, actually suffered slightly less from recession layoffs than other age groups. But those who did lose their jobs have found it significantly tougher to get back into the workforce, even as the overall job market improves. Two-thirds of the boomers who found new employment are making less than they did in their previous job, suffering a median salary loss of 18 percent, compared to a 6.7 percent decrease for 20- to 24-year-olds. And while 62 percent of the 20- to 54-year-olds who lost jobs have been reemployed, only 47 percent of those 55- to 64-years-old have made it back into the workforce. For workers over 65, a growing breed, the situation is dire: only 24 percent of that age group is drawing a paycheck again.

A number of myths regarding the performance of older workers and their suitability for the modern workforce contribute to age bias, on both institutionalized and subconscious levels. Older workers, the myths contend, are set in their ways, technophobic, unexcited about challenges, too expensive, etc. Yet, a growing body of scientific studies — psychological and biological — indicates that, as people age, their capacity to innovate, create and productively channel life experiences are all enhanced. Studies analyzing the correlation between creativity and aging have found that older workers boost innovation in the workplace. In fact, a recent study published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology concludes that “…older workers are no less innovative or creative than younger workers, and under the right conditions are much more so.”

Nevertheless, five years into the Recession and the supposed recovery, the majority of new jobs available are low-wage service jobs that don’t require experience or commitment. As boomers are waking up to the fact that growing old isn’t what it used to be, they face the sobering realization that the comfort zones where they found work and career fulfillment throughout their lives no longer exist. Whether they were booted out or left on their own, when older boomers — educated, skilled, healthy and richly experienced — find themselves out of work and unprepared for retirement they have no choice but to reach deep to construct a new stage for the next phase of their lives. This has led many to take a more “right-brain” approach to life and career.

Do what you love

During the annual Aging in America conference hosted by the American Society on Aging in April 2013, Ken Dychtwald, president and CEO of AgeWave, said: “Anyone who thinks the boomers will turn 65 and be the same as the generation before are missing out on the last 60 years of sociology.” Free from corporate dictates; free from formulated processes; free from routine, these aging boomers make up the first generation to realize that self-realization and survival are not mutually exclusive: Making a living can be accomplished by doing something you love and have a unique penchant for doing.

A study by The Kauffman Foundation, which studies small business and entrepreneurial trends, found that even as the recession was taking hold in 2007 and 2008, Americans between the ages of 55 and 64 were creating small businesses at the highest rate of any age group, as they had been for the previous ten years. The study posited: “The decline of lifetime employment, the experience and knowledge of the age group, longer lifespan, and the effect of the current recession are all factors contributing to the increase in entrepreneurial activity in the baby boom generation.”

Finding meaning in work

Whether they need income or a way to contribute and stay relevant, the predilection for community service will drive boomers to arenas for doing good or bringing meaning to other peoples’ lives. The Corporation for National and Community Service analyzed decades of Census and Labor Department statistics to conclude: “The number of volunteers of age 65 and older in the U.S. will increase 50 percent by 2020.” And other studies show how boomers, highly educated and deeply engaged in their communities, are more likely than previous generations to volunteer with groups and causes that have direct and measurable impact on the lives of their neighbors.

Meaning comes from helping a neighbor or supporting a special cause. And it comes from expressing creative impulses that traditional workplaces and industries too often restrain. That’s why so many boomers across the globe, disheartened by investing hope in political and economic dead-ends, will turn to their own talents to inspire and aid those in their immediate community.

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