These days, thousands of college-bound teenagers mark the end of high school with a gap year, a chance to stop and think, to work and travel, and to gain the perspective and energy necessary for making the most of what’s next.
What do their parents do to mark the end of exhausting midlife careers and decades of child-rearing? What do they do to rest and prepare for what’s next in their lives?
Not much. What existed for their parents — retirement parties, gold watches and pensions to cover the costs of decades of leisure — is gone. For most people, the end of middle age is no longer attached to the beginning of retirement or old age. Instead millions of 50- and 60-somethings approach this territory with uncertainty. With lifespans stretching into the ninth decade, what are they going to with their next 30 years — and how will they pay for it?
Right now, there’s an absence of any formal rites or routes of passage for those moving from midlife to the new phase with no name. To fill the void, why not create a gap year for grown-ups? Don’t we deserve a break, too — after juggling extreme jobs and family responsibilities in shaky economic times?
Joseph Campbell described midlife as the time when we get to the top of the ladder — only to discover it’s leaning against the wrong wall. A gap year would offer those in their 50, 60s and 70s a chance to regroup, to find the kind of renewal they need to start a new stage of life. It would provide an opportunity to disrupt familiar patterns (and inertia), to grow personally, to be exposed to new experiences, and to try on potential future roles. It could help focus efforts on an encore career — one that combines meaning, continued income and social impact.
Most people are already taking time off, in one form or another. Some even call it retirement. A 2010 study from the RAND Corporation shows that a sizable portion of the U.S. population first retires and then “unretires,” an act researchers find is primarily by design and not the result of unexpected circumstances. In other words, many may be using the cover of retirement, followed by unretirement, as a kind of de facto gap period. In Britain, there are approximately 200,000 grey gappers each year. Why not bring that tradition to the United States?
Designer Stefan Sagmeister decided that the old regiment of 25 years of education, then 40 years of working, then 25 of leisured retirement didn’t cut it. His innovation: Take a chunk of those retirement years and allocate them throughout the life course, building in time for new learning, growth, disruption, and renewal every seven years or so. That’s what academics do, and they don’t even have to call it a Sagmeister. It’s no accident that the words Sabbath and sabbatical derive from the same root.
Some individuals in their 50s and 60s are in a position to take their gap year — whether they’re “retired” from a career, have been downsized, or are taking a breather before “unretiring.” Anne Nolan is one. Her company shut down, providing her a year’s salary as severance.
“That year of reflection was an important part of my journey,” Nolan said. “Three months into the year, it just kind of hit me that I couldn’t do another corporate job.” It was time to align the ladder to a new wall.
Nolan took a lot of long, reflective walks, got on the board of a homeless shelter and, five months later, when the president’s position at the shelter became open, she applied for and got the job. She’s been there for 10 years now and while she’s struggling with the financial implications, she still calls the move “the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
Good for her, you’re thinking, she had a year’s salary to live on. What about those of us who can’t afford a gap year?
No doubt very few adults of any age are able to take a year off with no income. Since we, as a society, have so much at stake in such a large segment of the population finding its footing post-midlife, we should step in and help. I’d like to see:
- Revamped corporate retirement policies. Some corporations, like HP, are leading the way by offering employees who are eligible to retire the chance to work part-time for a year for a local nonprofit — for pay. Those in encore fellowships number only in the dozens right now, but more corporations are joining these pioneers. Even the federal government plans to get into the act. A provision in the Serve America Act authorizes 10 encore fellowships in each state, but it has yet to be funded.
- More national service options. Everyone knows someone who wanted to serve in the Peace Corps but never got around to it. We can and should create more opportunities for boomers to join the Peace Corps, VISTA or AmeriCorps. Boomers bring decades of valuable experience to the work they do in this country or abroad, and they get a chance to think and prepare for their encore careers. And, while it’s not much, they do get a stipend.
- Financial aid policies for the second half of life. Pell Grants could be more useful to new-stage learners if there were available to those who want to go to school part-time or earn an occupational certificate. The Higher Education Act could be modified to create “Micro Pell Grants” to meet the needs of such working learners. Similarly, the Education for Public Service Act of 2007, which provides student-loan forgiveness for those who pursue public-service work, can be modified to better meet the needs of encore adults who have returned to school to help launch social-purpose careers.
- New ways to save for gap years. What about an IPA — an Individual Purpose Account — designed to help fund this transition? With tax credits and other mechanisms, Congress could support IPAs designed to make switching to encore careers easier, just as 401(k)s make saving for retirement easier. And Congress could pass the Lifelong Learning Accounts Act of 2007, which would help workers save for future education to jump-start encore careers. The bill would establish tax-exempt accounts to pay for tuition and fees, provide individuals a tax credit for their own contributions, and allow employers a tax credit for contributions they make on behalf of their employees.
- Reforms to make Social Security more useful. What if we begin to see Social Security as seed capital to help individuals invest in the next stage of their lives? Why not let people start and stop Social Security payments, as circumstances change? Individuals could begin taking Social Security at 62, use it to subsidise a gap year, and then stop as they return to the workforce, in a way that actuarially adjusts their later payments to be revenue neutral. Even more radical, we could allow individuals to take a year or two of Social Security before 62, say at 50 or 55, to underwrite a transition year, with the compensation that they would begin getting full benefits later (again in an actuarially adjusted way). A Social Security Sagmeister.
These measures can help us forge a new map of life, one that builds in breaks more sensibly along a much longer trajectory, that is fitted to the new lifespans of the 21st century — and not just for all those flagging boomers approaching the big six-oh. After all, half the children born since 2000 in the developed world are projected to see their 100th birthdays. Let’s pass on to them a lifecourse that’s sustaining and sustainable, that pays off on the promise of the longevity revolution, for now and for generations to come.
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