Obama's Call to Public Service and the Boomer Generation

12/25/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Mark Miller Reuters columnist and author of The Hard Times Guide to Retirement Security

Arianna Huffington and others have taken note of President-elect Obama's plans to call Americans to public service to address the country's urgent problems. In a July campaign speech, Obama outlined his ideas for expanding existing programs like the Peace Corps, and launching new ones focused on education and energy; he also talked extensively about public service at the Service Nation summit in September.

Much of the conversation around national service so far has focused on young people. But civic engagement and service to the community also is a very hot topic among older Americans, especially baby boomers. The older boomers now closing in on 60 came of age in the politically-charged 1960s and early 1970s. Since then, they've been hard at work raising families, building careers and sending kids to college; now, many anticipate using newfound free time to get back in the mix.

Boomers were a big force in Obama's army of campaign foot soldiers, and tapping them for broader public service would have a huge impact -- in part because there are so many of us. The boomer generation is the largest in American history, accounting for roughly 78 million Americans. Whenever it moves in a particular direction, the impact is huge.

And there are clear signs that a shift is underway. A recent study by the Metlife Foundation and Civic Ventures -- a think tank focused on engaging older adults in socially meaningful work -- found that a surprisingly large number of boomers already have moved from primary careers into "encore careers" that combine income with personal meaning and social impact.

Somewhere between six to 10 percent of Americans age 44 to 70 are already engaged in encore careers, according to the study. So, we're talking about 5.3 to 8.4 million people who have taken up second careers in service-oriented fields like education, health care, government and the non-profit sector. And about half of boomers not already in encore careers said that's where they see themselves heading. If they follow through on that ambition, the national service army of boomers would grow by millions more.

Marc Freedman, the CEO of Civic Ventures and a thought leader in this area, has advocated a new "social compact" between government and boomers. Fiscal and financial assistance would come in return for longer working lives in areas of high social need. That might include eliminating taxation of Social Security benefits to make the benefit more valuable, and plugging the "Medicare gap" years by making it possible for people in their 50s to buy into Medicare.

Indeed, the Metlife/Civic Ventures survey shows that affordable health care is one of the biggest challenge boomers face in leaving their careers to pursue national or community service.

Civic Ventures will celebrate and explore midlife career transitions to public service in early December when it convenes the Encore Careers Summit on the campus of Stanford University. Hundreds of people already in service-oriented second careers will be on hand to network and share their experiences. A highlight will be the announcement of the 2008 Purpose Prize winners -- a sort of genius grant for midlife social innovators that comes with a $100,000 prize to each winner.

President-elect Obama hasn't named a national service czar to his team yet -- but he should send someone to the Summit to check out a potential army of foot soldiers. They're a little older than most, but no worse for the wear.