Sometimes, it’s tough to imagine a bright future for members of the Millennial generation. A new Pew Research study reveals that high levels of student loan debt and low levels of wealth and personal income are paving a rutted road for Millennials, roughly defined as those now in their teens through the low 30s. Yet they are still optimistic about the future and, according to The Millennial Impact Project report, want to make a meaningful difference. Happy hour conversations with friends at a steadily increasing crop of Millennial-attracting whiskey establishments echo this trend. (In full disclosure, I too am a Millennial.)
With this unsettling news, it may seem pollyannaish to describe a future in which we’re incredibly passionate about our jobs while simultaneously managing to leave a positive impact on our world. Maybe we should just worry about having a job, period. But can’t I work to save the world and eat my cake, too? That may very well be the case, and we can look to baby boomers and older adults for part of the answer.
A recent report by Boston College and Encore.org shows that honorees and nominees of the Purpose Prize, a program that celebrates the achievements of social entrepreneurs over the age of 60, describe their work as very close to an “ideal job.” These real-life trailblazers are defying the notion that innovation is the sole province of the young. They are working as changemakers in education, health care, social services, and the environment, among others, and report that their work is personally meaningful and an important part of who they are as individuals. Nearly 95 percent noted that if they had all the money they needed without working, they would still continue down the same path.
These notable social entrepreneurs are the most celebrated of a growing movement toward purpose in later life, but according to Encore.org’s research, they are just a few of the 9 million Americans ages 44 to 70 who are already in encore careers that combine personal meaning, social impact, and for many, continued income.
However, it’s not always easy to get to an encore. In fact, more than two in three (67 percent) of those already in encore careers experienced gaps in their personal income during the transition from their previous careers to their encores, and nearly four in five (79 percent) of those experienced a gap of six months or more. A majority relied on personal savings alone to make ends meet.
It’s no surprise, then, that the encore stage of life is often seen as an elite institution, available only to those who can afford to labor without pay and take the time to reflect on personal goals and passions.
We should think carefully about how to make encore careers available to all those who want to use their later years to improve their communities and the bigger world. How about planning for our encores early in our careers, just as we do (or should) for retirement? Policies should encourage this. We need to re-imagine key stages in our lives, too. Why, for example, do we feel the urge to cram all of our education into the first 25 years of our lives? Wouldn’t it be better—for our creativity, for our mental and emotional capacities, and for our economy—if we engaged our minds in learning throughout our lives, refreshing skills as we and the world evolve, to help others in need?
Already, programs are cropping up that make this vision a reality and help people move into socially-impactful work past midlife. But we need more than those pathways. We also need to change our thinking so that social contribution is the preferred complement (or replacement) to the tired vision of traditional retirement. That way, the encore stage of life will become a true cultural norm, available to anyone who wants in, for years to come. Including, by the way, me and many of my twenty- and thirty-something friends. Which is why this Millennial is spending his time working with a bunch of baby boomers, looking for ways to make it easier for current and future generations to live, and not just leave, their legacies.