A new aging narrative for boomers from Milken Institute

When it comes to aging and retirement, the issues are big, the stakes are high, and the solutions are complex. This was the impetus for a recent gathering of innovative leaders exploring a new narrative of retirement at the inaugural Milken Institute Successful Aging Innovation Summit: Work, Productivity and Beneficial Purpose.  

Underwritten by the John Templeton Foundation, the summit was hosted by the Milken Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank focused on economics, policy solutions and health. A carefully curated group of approximately 30 guests, including academics, economists, journalists, social innovators, a politician and a faith-based leader, gathered for the summit at the Beverly Hilton Hotel from May 30 to June 1.

The essence of their conversation was poignantly articulated in an anecdote shared by Marc Freedman, 56, founder and CEO of San Francisco-based Encore.org and author of “The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife” (2012). “There were three Jewish guys who called themselves the PIP squad — Previous Important Persons. Their motto was: The world may be done with us, but it’s just that we aren’t done with the world,” Freedman recalled telling the crowd.

The conference was organized by Paul H. Irving, 62, the Milken Institute president. Irving is also the author of “The Upside of Aging: How Long Life is Changing the World of Health, Work, Innovation, Policy and Purpose” (2014), a compilation of essays, many of which were written by summit participants. 

Pointing to demographic reality, Irving explained to the Journal in an interview  the need to rethink traditional retirement: “In the United States, there are 78 million [baby] boomers; 10,000 a day are turning 65. This is a phenomenon that is not just occurring in the U.S. — it is a … state of aging occurring throughout the world, with Japan’s population aging the most rapidly. So, this question about what people do in later life and how can we make longer lives productive and meaningful both for individuals and society is a very significant question for all of us — individually, and [as] societies and governments across the world.” 

Participants agreed that a cultural change is imminent, and that developing a new roadmap for the largest group of aging Americans in history will involve discarding stereotypes and focusing instead on vitality, productivity and purpose. 

“We feel that we are at the beginning stage of something really big and really, really exciting,” Irving said. “We have a longevity paradox. … As science does its miraculous work and enables us to live longer, healthier lives, what are we doing to take advantage of that incredible work that science has done? That is the question that we are trying to answer. ”

The summit brought together a cross section of leaders from diverse disciplinary fields. Those in attendance included Henry Cisneros, former mayor of San Antonio and former secretary of Housing and Urban Development; Leslie Stahl, “60 Minutes” correspondent; Pinchas Cohen, dean of the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology; and Lester Strong, CEO of AARP. The issues and perspectives discussed, and the slate of recommendations made, will be compiled and published by the Milken Institute later this year.   

Laura Geller, senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills for 20 years and the only faith-based leader at the summit, said she came away from the meeting convinced that all faith communities need to pay attention to this cultural shift. Although focusing attention on the 20- to 30-year-old population has long been considered important for continued growth of the Jewish community, Geller believes it’s increasingly important to also focus on the critical cohort of what she refers to as the “panini generation.” These are the boomers who are squeezed between caring for their aging parents and the needs of adult children returning home to live because of economic challenges. 

“For many people, the spiritual question relates to the fear of invisibility. Once I am no longer the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel, who am I? Once I am no longer the senior partner at a major law firm, what am I? That’s a real question that boomers are dealing with.” Geller said. 

To work toward solutions, Geller uses an organization model that involves a series of meetings held in congregants’ homes, where 50- to 75-year-olds gather to reflect on the challenges ahead — financial preparation, intergenerational connection, mentoring, health care, community, creating new rituals, spirituality and more. And Temple Emanuel is organizing a city-wide conversation Nov. 9 called “The Next Stage: Looking Forward and Giving Back.”  

Freedman is also working on solutions through his nonprofit company Encore.org, which is a resource for connecting people who are making a social impact and helping others create their own second act. Encore.org offers a fellowship program — an internship for adults who want to transition from the private sector into the nonprofit world. In addition, Encore.org provides a “purpose prize” for social entrepreneurs to further their work. This year’s $100,000 prize was awarded to Judea Pearl, a UCLA computer science professor emeritus and the father of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

“We are getting these mixed messages from society,” Freedman said. “Do we hang on to our fading youth — the 60s are the new 40s — or accept the new senior discount at 50 or 60 and accept premature old age? We are on the verge of changing the map of life [to one] that is suitable to the changing length of life. I think for many people, it’s a new crown of life.” 

A number of viable strategies emerged from the discussions at the summit. One was the creation of an “individual purpose account,” similar in concept to the existing individual retirement account (IRA). Designed to help enable people to reinvest in their human capital, this plan would make available a year or two of their Social Security benefits, which they could withdraw without penalty early, in their 50s, in order to go back to school or participate in an internship. Then, they would be permitted to replenish what they’d taken out, and get back to their full benefits, by working later into life.

The idea that had the most momentum at the summit was the creation of a “Boomer Corps,” a national service program. Similar to the Peace Corps, which was originally created for this same generation, the Boomer Corps would offer opportunities at the juncture in life when people are looking for help resetting priorities, re-examining identity and finding new, rewarding kinds of experiences. 

“We all learn, as Jews, tikkun olam,” Irving said. “Older people are extraordinarily valuable assets to improve the world. There is more to life than …  golf, or shuffleboard or just this inextricable decline to death. There is a great opportunity later in life to do things that are even more important … than maybe what one has done earlier in life, more meaningful, and have the potential for more lasting impact for good in the world.”