At the first White House Conference on Aging in 1961, President Kennedy remarked that while we have "added years to life," the challenge is how might we "add life to years." Sad to say, Kennedy's prescient perspective has been largely lost in much of our national conversation about aging. You know the story: The silver tsunami, the swelling tide of greedy geezers who haven't saved enough for their retirement will overwhelm the economy with too few young workers supporting too many seniors.
The dire demographics of baby boomer aging couldn't be more wrong. A series of broad, mutually reinforcing changes is transforming an aging population into a valuable economic asset. Boomers are healthier and better-educated than previous generations. A grass-roots movement has emerged rethinking everyday expectations about the so-called retirement years. Work lies at the core of the new unretirement experiment, including full-time employment, bridge jobs, part-time work, temp jobs, contract tasks, phased retirement and starting a business and nonprofit organization.
Last year, I attended the annual conference of Encore.org, a nonprofit organization founded by social entrepreneur Marc Freedman. It focuses on encouraging aging boomers to take their skills and experience into organizations and social ventures tackling some of society's most troubling issues. The highlight was the annual Purpose Prize awards ceremony honoring six people over 60. The winners were an inspiring group. Among them was the Rev. Richard Joyner, pastor of the Conetoe Baptist Church in rural North Carolina. People in his community were dying at a young age, mostly for health-related reasons. He started Conetoe Family Life Center, a 25-acre community garden for young people ages 15 to 18. They sell the produce and honey from the beehives and the proceeds go to school supplies and scholarships. Charles Fletcher was a veteran of the telecommunications business. In his encore, he created SpiritHorse, an equine therapy center for children with disabilities on his ranch in Texas. There are now 91 centers licensed internationally. The Purpose Prize winners are extraordinary people. They show how productive and creative most people can be in the last third of life.
The more positive vision of aging has practical personal finance implications. For one thing, even earning a slim part-time income dramatically improves household finances in the elder years. For another, the centerpiece in planning for retirement is increasingly focusing on what is it you want to do next. In many cases, older workers will carry their existing skills into a new setting. For example, a registered nurse might move from a major hospital to a community clinic. A certified financial planner might keep a few favored clients and teach financial literacy to immigrants.
Forget the dire demographics of aging. The extra years in life expectancy are an opportunity to embrace, Freedman says. He's right, from the personal to the community to the economy. The prospect is exciting.
Chris Farrell is economics editor for "Marketplace Money" and author of "Unretirement: How Baby Boomers are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community and the Good Life." His e-mail is email@example.com. Read his column every Sunday in the Star Tribune.