Not Déjà Vu All Over Again

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Written by Jane Quinn, Originally published in Youth Today Newspaper

A smart person once observed that opportunity resides at the intersection of need and capacity. I thought of this adage recently as I read two seemingly disparate documents: a report prepared by the Next Generation Youth Work Coalition focusing on current work force challenges in the youth development field (“Growing the Next Generation of Youth Professionals: Workforce Opportunities and Challenges”), and a new book by Marc Freedman titled Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life.

Most of us youth work practitioners are well aware of the work force issues in our field, such as the ongoing demand for caring, competent adults who can guide and support young people, and the need for experienced managers and administrators to lead youth development organizations. Two factors make addressing these needs more complex: the part-time nature of many of the available positions and salaries that often are not commensurate with the demands of the jobs.

Freedman’s analysis addresses these challenges. He assesses the major demographic shift that is occurring as the baby boom generation reaches retirement age even as life expectancy in the United States is at an all-time high. Faced with the prospect of 30 or more years outside the work force, many recent retirees are seeking ways to shift gears and perhaps slow down a bit, but definitely not to hibernate or spend three decades on the golf course. In other words, they are a growing source for the work force.

Encore combines fresh factual information with thoughtful policy analysis and illuminating case studies. It outlines a vision for “the biggest transformation of the American work force since the women’s movement.”

The author notes that our vocabulary for describing the opportunity afforded by this phenomenon is inadequate and riddled with oxymorons, such as “retirement jobs” and “young-olds.” He urges us to consider the concept of an “encore career”: a new stage of work in which older adults focus their attention less on making money and more on giving meaning to their lives by applying their skills and experience to work that benefits society.

Eight detailed case studies of encore career pioneers illustrate this idea. Some of these individuals put existing skills to new uses, while others launched entirely new careers, even started new organizations and businesses as social entrepreneurs. Some moved from the private sector to nonprofit work, while others moved within the nonprofit sector. Some went from education to health care or from the military to other public service. What these pioneers shared was a desire for social impact, flexible schedules and, frequently, modest incomes to supplement pensions or savings.

We have begun to see this phenomenon emerge in the field of youth work. Over the past several years, for example, I’ve met nonprofit executives who have chosen to migrate to youth development from other fields: people like Paula Gavin, who became president of the YMCA of New York City after a successful corporate career, and Ron Gurley, who transitioned from school superintendent to CEO of a Boys & Girls Club in Oklahoma.

I once thought their stories were interesting but anomalous. I now understand that colleagues like Paula and Ron were innovators who represented the first wave of a significant social and economic trend. Freedman provides the data and the context for this phenomenon by explaining that, if even a small percentage of the 76 million baby boomers decided to move into youth work, we could probably solve, or at least significantly address, our most pressing work force problems.

The onus is on us to maximize this opportunity. Given the often hidden nature of our youth development work, retiring boomers are unlikely to beat down our doors. We need to take the initiative in recruiting qualified candidates from this largely untapped pool. It makes sense for leaders in the field to educate ourselves about the facts of this demographic shift and take advantage of its possibilities.

A good place to start: rereading Erik Erikson to remind ourselves about the central need for “generativity” in the later stages of human development, and pondering the implications of Freedman’s new paradigm for addressing one of youth work’s most persistent dilemmas.

Jane Quinn is Vice President for Community Schools and Director of the National Center for Community Schools at The Children’s Aid Society in New York City. Contact: janeq@childrensaidsociety.org.