Social Security would fund mid-life education, suggests author


By Brian Goslow

With nearly 10,000 people a day turning 60 and the widespread fear they’ll eventually bankrupt Social Security, at times it can feel the United States is inevitably headed for a battle between young and old over how federal government dollars are spent.

Marc Freedman, founder and CEO of Civic Ventures, a San Francisco-based think tank on boomers, work and social purpose, hopes to help stem that tide with the publication of his new book, THE BIG SHIFT: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife (PublicAffairs).

He hopes the book will inspire national policy change with regard to preparing Americans for the second half of their lives and encourage the 50 and older population to become engaged so they’re seen as a healthy, vibrant resource when it comes to funding programs specifically meant for them.

“I really fear that a lot of the predictions about the friction of an aging society will come true if we’re not actively investing in keeping this group engaged,” Freedman said in a recent interview. “We’re starting to see this older people-younger people conflict when in fact the group that is going through these transitions now is into largely unchartered territory.”

Freedman’s book is built around the belief that most U.S. residents, whether through necessity or choice, will seek out new career directions during the post-50 portion of their life.

While it’s generally understood that we’re living much longer lives, as a society, we’ve yet to adjust to this reality with programs to help those reaching mid-life get a second round of higher education to explore which career path they’ll travel next.

“When we were coming of age the first time, there was college and other kinds of institutions and signals that at least helped somewhat,” said Freedman, 52. “You knew what you were supposed to do to make the transition to the stage called adulthood.

“Now people are different than when they were 30, particularly in the 60-to-80 period, and yet they’re not old in any way, certainly not like their grandparents were. This period is so ill defined. There isn’t any clear set of expectations; there isn’t even a name for it.”

To remedy this, Freedman’s book includes one major suggestion sure to turn heads: the institution of “a gap year for grown-ups,” where people, generally in their 50s, would be given a year off for reflection and renewal while they’re exposed to new vocational experiences.

This would be underwritten through Social Security; participants would agree to delay when they would begin getting their full-time Social Security payments by a time equal to the time they spent in school, either one or two years. This would offset their period of no income as they add to their education. The payoff for society is having their experience available for an extended period of time.

“So that raises the question, not what you’re going to do for the next 18 months, but what you’re going to do the next 18 years,” Freedman said. “It makes the argument for a lot of careful thinking, planning and preparation, for going back to school, for doing an internship, for exploring for a few years before settling into a new path.

“The biggest difficulty for people looking to go in this direction, is getting started, especially for people who are thrust into this stage involuntarily, whether through a layoff or downsizing.”

Freedman pointed out that Massachusetts is ahead of the curve when it comes to preparing for this kind of second career course, crediting second-half life exploration organizations such as Discovering What’s Next of Newton, New Directions of Boston and the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative, which he called a beacon of a new kind of higher education for people over 50.

“It’s much easier if you can have somebody like these organizations there to bounce ideas off of, to have workshops in this area where they can talk to peers who have gone through the same kinds of transitions,” Freedman said.

Freedman suggests mid-life Americans could also be helped to thrive by revamping higher education programs. People who plan to work 40 or 50 years could receive the necessary retraining and retooling and have access to internships, fellowships and national service programs in exploring second career options.

At the same time Freedman is promoting more opportunities for the country’s 50-plus residents, budget shortfalls are causing many of the same programs to be cut. The Massachusetts Service Alliance and AmeriCorps program, which administers 169 national service programs statewide, is threatened with huge, if not full, funding cuts.

This makes the political engagement of those who would benefit from the programs Freedman promotes imperative. “What’s been lost (in current political debate aimed at cutting, not adding, new programs) is the stake that all generations have in doing and making these investments,” he said. “On one hand, you really need to be creative when big societal changes are occurring. I think we’re much more likely to have the problems that people talk about being associated with an aging society if we’re in this reactive posture of retrenchment.

“On the other hand, if we were finding more ways for people to be engaged with their experience, to feel vital, it’ll lead to prolonged health and having a much broader world view and understanding of the needs of other people in society.”

Baby boomers wouldn’t be the only ones to benefit from the institution of these programs. “They’re just the first group to pass into this phase; their children and grandchildren will eventually move in the same direction,” Freedman said, “So turning this period into a time of fulfillment, engagement and connection is something that younger people have a stake in as well. It’s a time for people to come together and understand the possibilities for these people and for society to invest in it.”

Discovering What’s Next presents a breakfast talk by Marc Freedman on April 8 from 8:30-10:30 a.m. at the Newton Cultural Center. The $25 registration fee includes a continental breakfast and copy of The Big Shift. Call 617-467-5438.