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Marc Freedman

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Generativity Revolution

Posted: 02/03/10 12:48 PM ET

Under the headline, "The Geezers' Crusade," the New York Times columnist David Brooks calls for a social movement of older adults on behalf of younger people.

Brooks calls for a "generativity revolution" to reverse public policies that he says rob the young to serve the old and take from them funding, freedom and opportunity.

"It now seems clear that the only way the U.S. is going to avoid an economic crisis is if the oldsters take it upon themselves to arise and force change," he writes.

We agree, except to say that the real generativity revolution is well underway. And with the help of smart new policies, this movement of forward-looking baby boomers might actually succeed.

After decades of decline, the average retirement age has been increasing steadily, with more adults 55 and older staying in the labor force. And its increasingly clear that these older workers aren't competing with younger people; they are meeting demands for talent that will only grow as the economy recovers.

A recent survey for the MetLife Foundation and Civic Ventures found that as many as eight million Americans are already in "encore careers" that combine their passions with purpose, in fields such as education, health and the environment. Even more promising: half of all those 44 to 70 told researchers they want encore careers focused on causes greater than themselves. At the top of the list: work that benefits future generations.

Innovative practices and smart policy can strengthen this intergenerational alliance. A mobilization of older adults to transform schools, as teachers, tutors and mentors, could reduce dropout rates and bolster science and math education. An army of encore "health navigators" holds promise to both improve health and reduce costs. All hands on deck - as contractors, managers and trainers - are required to retrofit our buildings for energy efficiency, speed the transition to a clean-energy economy and create good jobs for all ages.

Employers could follow the lead of IBM, which launched the Transition to Teaching program to help its senior engineers and technicians shift into math and science teaching, or Hewlett-Packard, which helped pilot the Encore Fellowship, enabling early retirees to launch second careers with youth or environmental organizations. Many community colleges have created quick and inexpensive pathways for those who want to become teachers, nurses or green-collar workers in their encore careers.

Policymakers have already taken small steps. A provision in last year's Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act authorized encore fellowships to help boomers transition to public service encore careers. More is needed, such as education support, payroll tax relief and "posterity tax credits" for those working beyond the normal retirement age for the public good.

"It may seem unrealistic -- to expect a generation to organize around the cause of nonselfishness," Brooks writes. But he notes that, in private, older adults display such generativity every day, to their children, their grandchildren and their communities.

The generativity revolution is on. With 10,000 baby boomers turning 60 every day, it's time for public policies that honor their aspiration to leave the world a better place and harness their talent and energy for the long haul.