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Changing times

In the backroom of a neighbourhood restaurant, a small group of men and women in their 50s gathered recently to mark a milestone. “I feel like when historians look back and think about this salmon lunch at MacArthur Park, they’ll see this was a real turning point,” said Marc Freedman, who started a pilot program for baby boomers to transition into second careers.

These 10 executives had all left their high-paying jobs in the private sector and joined the pilot program, and this was their formal graduation. They had taken a step familiar to some high school or college students: Take a year off to regroup, rethink and figure out what they want to be when they grow up.

They dived into what are called Encore Fellowships, six-month or yearlong paid stints with nonprofit organisations in fields like education and the environment. The privately financed fellowship was named for what Freedman, 51, a leading expert on the changing nature of retirement and the founder of Civic Ventures in San Francisco, calls the Encore Generation. It is the model for a program that would expand to all 50 states under federal legislation enacted last spring.

The idea that many workers reaching their mid and late 60s think they are too young to retire and, particularly in the wake of the recession, may have no choice but to keep working, is not particularly new. And as Freedman writes in his book Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life, “there are plenty of retired Americans who have gone back to full — or part-time work after retiring, perhaps turning their “golden years” into their “Wal-Mart years.”

But with growing evidence of a demographic wrench being thrown into the classic arc of the life course — essentially a bonus decade or three added to the average life span over the last century — researchers are now exploring an entirely new developmental stage for people roughly between the ages of 55 and 75, challenging the notion that these years are marked by an inevitable mental and physical decline.

Research into the changing — and increasingly aging — work force has also been accompanied by encouraging findings on the mental abilities of the aging. While older people’s memories and ability to process information are not as sharp, their knowledge increases over time, and many say that is a vast untapped resource.

All of this points to the possibility of a kind of intellectual rejuvenation at a time of life typically thought best suited to winding down. Sociologists studying the implications of the lengthening life span, with an average gain in industrialised countries of roughly 30 years over the last century, are watching the pilot programme here closely.

Some of the names researchers are using for this life chapter, which Freedman compared to the idea of adolescence — a stage, not an age — are “Midcourse,” “New Old Age,” “Young Old Age,” and “The Third Age.”

Bill Pace, 56, who joined the Encore Fellowship after retiring from his job in financial consulting and finding that volunteer work was not fulfilling enough, said he had been using the word “spanners” to describe himself and his peers. “The spanners, they are spanning what basically used to happen between when you stopped working and when you died,” said Pace, who plans to work with Civic Ventures to develop training and education, primarily at community colleges, for people seeking new skills for this work transition.

Seven months into his fellowship, Pace was out sailing and had a heart attack, from which he has recovered. The odd thing, he said, was that he had already made all the radical life changes one often contemplates after looking death in the eye: leaving a job that required long hours and frequent international travel, working half time for Civic Ventures and an educational nonprofit, along with volunteering.

The way the life script is written now, the young study, the middle of life is packed with work and raising families, the old rest or volunteer, and everybody is doubled over with anxiety about Social Security drying up, Carstensen said.

A paper published last October in the Lancet predicted that half of all the babies born since 2000 in the United States and several other developed countries could live to 104.

The baby boom generation will be the longest living, healthiest group of people in their 50s, 60s and 70s thus far in history, experts say, although life expectancy could level off for younger generations in the United States because of health issues like obesity. The number of Americans age 55 and older, 71 million today, is projected to increase by 2030, to 110 million, according to Census figures.

And boomers are the guinea pigs for experiments like the one here, which was funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and Hewlett-Packard, where several of the Encore fellows worked until taking buyout packages or early retirement.

Nine of the 10 fellows, who were paid a $25,000 stipend, are staying on in some capacity at the nonprofit organizations to which they were assigned. Eight of the 10 nonprofits, which for the next class of fellows will be required to pay at least half the $25,000 stipend, are sponsoring fellows again.

There is no way to accurately measure how many baby boomers nationally may be making the kind of career and life changes the Encore fellows have. But Freedman and others suggest this is the beginning of a movement that could have the kind of enormous impact on the work force that women’s liberation did.

Several recent surveys conducted by Civic Ventures, the AARP and other groups, show that a majority of Americans approaching retirement want to continue working past traditional retirement age and have a strong desire to remain productive and set new goals. Many plan to continue either working full time or part time into their 70s, and a substantial number into their 80s.

The pilot project here will double to 20 fellows next month. Civic Ventures is working to expand it to five states this year, and if that happens, 100 Encore fellows would be in place by the end of 2010.

The national service act that President Barack Obama signed in April not only tripled the size of the AmeriCorps programme begun by President Bill Clinton, but for the first time included baby boomers in the paid volunteer slots. The new programme, which has a “senior corps” for older Americans, focuses on five service areas — poverty, education, energy efficiency, health care and assistance to veterans. It provides for 10 one-year Encore Fellowships per state, although the funding has not yet been allocated.

In early 2007, when Gina Cassinelli, 53, received an e-mail message offering early retirement packages at Hewlett-Packard — where she had worked, most recently in marketing, for 26 years — she said it took her “30 seconds” to take one. The recession hadn’t hit yet, but she said she was ready. She wasn’t entirely sure what she was ready for, but she retired and drove with a friend across the country, stopping at many of the places, she said, she used to fly above in her constant, exhausting travel.

“I was done and I was ready for something different and it wasn’t giving me that energy,” she said of her job, noting that she loved it for many years, especially when Silicon Valley was spinning with excitement at the height of the dot-com boom.

But she was perplexed: What to do? Then she learned of the Encore Fellowship and was placed part-time at an organisation that runs after-school programmes for middle school students. She is now working full time as the interim executive director, although she said she would probably not stay on there once that job is filled but will look for more work in the nonprofit sector.

Cassinelli’s idea about contributing to future generations, or giving back, is another subject that has gained growing attention in recent years among researchers looking at the implications of longer life expectancy.

The psychologist Erik Erikson, who is best known for his work in the 1950s exploring the stages of identity and development from birth to death, called the desire to further the well-being of future generations “generativity.” The Encore Fellowship’s emphasis on new kinds of work in the second act — though it is paid work — is closely tied to this concept, and research has shown that generativity is linked to greater satisfaction in life.

Most of the Encore Fellows were or are working for far less money than they made in the corporate world. The question is whether others can afford to do so.

One of the Encore Fellows, Nigel Ball, 52, who had worked in marketing for Hewlett-Packard before taking the fellowship, decided to return to the private sector because of financial concerns. He recently took a job as a vice president at the software firm Oracle. Still, he joined the board of directors of the nonprofit he was assigned to and said he suspects it won't be too long before he returns to what Freedman and others describe as “social purpose work” in the public sector. Being 50-plus is now so different for my generation," Ball said. “I am as active in every way, in fact more so than 20 years ago. I am fitter physically and mentally than I have ever been, so why would I stop being the person I am, which includes managing, making decisions, solving problems? I just want to do these things in a different context.”

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