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Reinvention For Boomers Is Not a Myth

01/09/2014 11:31 am 11:31:28 | Updated Mar 11, 2014

In a somewhat churlish post on HBR, Marc Freedman, CEO of Encore.org characterizes the prospect of career reinvention for the Boomer generation as a pernicious myth, an overhyped fantasy that only makes sense in the movies, but not in the "real" world. Marc: you're sounding like our parents. What gives?

With all due respect to Marc, and the great work that he does with Encore, I think he both underestimates and patronizes our generation. In my experience, and according to statistical data, Boomers are eminently able to reinvent themselves and create viable careers and lifestyles that can and will sustain them beyond the traditional 65-year-old retirement cut-off (now unfortunately a fiction inherited from the 20th century).

Marc asks that we back away from "reinvention" and settle for "reintegration," a term he feels better suits the adaptation that Boomers are having to make to keep going into their 60s and 70s. He does not believe that Boomers can or will (or should) throw everything away from their old lives and re-start from square-one to create a new life.

Since when does "reinvention" mean having to throw everything away? Perhaps Marc has not personally experienced a major career shift, but the reinvention process is not black or white. It comes in many flavors, from people who become entrepreneurs and consultants in their field, to people who redefine their roles in their current companies, to people who close out one career and flip to another. But what reinvention must include, to be effective, is a recognition and acceptance that what used to work doesn't work anymore. In my own reinvention experience, I had to surrender a slew of habits, practices, and mindsets that were keeping me stuck once I hit 50, and was forced to dig out from the ashes of my failed DotCom.

We must speak in terms of "Reinvention" for Boomers because times are tough for us, the situation is dire, there are few opportunities, and no reality of retirement. As Marc well knows. over 80 percent of our generation has saved less than $100k for retirement. So we have to keep working, which is why we need to think in terms of Reinvention, not Reintegration.

"Reintegration" does not go far enough in describing the kind of deep inner work that Boomers need to go through to adapt. Plus, Reintegration into what? Into jobs that no longer exist? Into businesses that are no longer competitive in the digital business landscape of the 21st century? Boomers need to "integrate" into a new world that is very different from the one we grew up in. Someone who's just been laid off from a 20+ year job with a medium-large corporation, needs to understand how the world has changed. They need to learn not only new skills, but entirely new ways of relating and interacting with their peers and with GenXers and Millennials. In order to do this, they must reinvent themselves: who they have become in the 25-35 years they've been at work, what they think they're capable of now given their experience, what their dreams have evolved to at this point in their lives... These are often radical considerations that are not merely reintegrations.

What downsized Boomers need to know is that they can successfully navigate the digital world, and create far more visibility and viability for themselves then they ever could in the days before the Internet. That's a powerful paradigm shift that requires a reinvented mindset to grab onto. I know downsized senior execs who don't understand what to do with the LinkedIn profile they've been told to set up by their career counselors. "Now what?" they ask me.

Add a dollop of positive psychology processes and practices that Boomers have never heard of, and they can set off on a much more secure footing, and gain greater control over their lives through greater awareness of their capabilities, and of their potential.

Where is the myth in building greater awareness and greater confidence? What's wrong with dreaming big? There are solutions out there for us, but they do not lie in retreating to timidity, or, worse, intimidation, in the face of change and uncertainty. As a teacher of mine once told me: "You may as well be the winner in your own fantasy." What's wrong with inspiring hope, while at the same time learning real skills, skills that can allow us to actually, practically, reinvent ourselves?

Finally, Marc's assertion that the reinvention "fantasy" perpetuates some sort of age-denial, where Boomers are ignoring their age and living in a quest for adolescence, is actually insulting and irresponsible. We are all living longer, and we are becoming more aware of how healthy living and preventive self-care can help us live better lives as we age. If we wanted to be adolescents, then we would demand that we be taken care of and allowed to run around retirement villages at our kids' expense. Instead, we're starting new businesses and finding other new ways to make a living so that we WON"T be a burden on our kids and the generations below us. And create meaning. And give back. I'm sorry, I'm confused: isn't this what Encore.org is all about?

The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation's annual Entrepreneurial Activity Index report for 2013 reported that 55-64 year olds make up 23.4 percent of new entrepreneurs in 2012, up from 14.3 percent in 1996. The same study reflected a drop in entrepreneurship for the 20-34 age group, down from 34.8 percent to 26.2 percent in 2012. While there is no guarantee that these Boomer entrepreneurs will all succeed, clearly Boomers are taking the risk and stepping forward to create something for themselves rather than taking it on the chin from corporate America, and waiting for a job offer that may never come. If this is a trend, I think it's a good one. I invite Marc to reconsider his position, and join us on the Reinvention front lines so that we can support one another in creating success and sustainability for our generation going forward.