The 'comeback kids' - - not just in politics

Making a comeback can be a newsworthy event for those in any field, from musicians and entertainers to athletes and long-silent authors. This month the spotlight is focusing on political comebacks. George W. Bush's Cabinet selections include several appointees who are returning (subject to confirmation) to posts they held during the Ford, Reagan, and Bush administrations.

Donald Rumsfeld, who was the youngest secretary of Defense a quarter-century ago when he served under Gerald Ford, will return to that post as one of the most senior members of President-elect Bush's Cabinet. Anthony Principi, Bush's choice as secretary of Veterans Affairs, held the same position under former President George Bush. Similarly, the new secretary of Agriculture, Ann Veneman, was a deputy Agriculture secretary in the first Bush administration.

Call them the comeback kids, Beltway style.

Public reaction has ranged from groans to cheers. But whatever an onlooker's opinion about the political merits of these "reruns," the choices send a message that is as relevant to business as it is to government: Maturity and experience remain valuable commodities.

Marc Freedman, author of "Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America," is watching with interest. In a telephone interview, he says: "What we're seeing with these new appointments is just the first instance of what will become a standard practice in life - people continuing to be involved and contributing, becoming an important part of society in what used to be a stage characterized by disengagement and leisure."

Further evidence of that attitude comes in a national survey of baby boomers released Monday by Del Webb Corp. This month the first baby boomers are turning 55, the age of early retirement. Yet those surveyed say they think of retirement as only a midlife event rather than a permanent stage of life - not an ending, but a beginning.

They want to create more challenging retirements where they continue to work, start new businesses, increase their knowledge, and establish new goals.

"When you retire, it's as if you have half of your life left to live," says Paula Jennings, project manager of the Del Webb survey. In another study the company did last year, 61 percent of baby boomers said it was likely they would work at least part time in retirement. Among those 65 and older, 20 percent - 1 in 5 - expressed interest in working.

Their motive, Ms. Jennings says, is not necessarily financial need. Instead, they want to remain engaged or are seeking something they hadn't been able to do earlier because of family or financial factors.

"There's just an air of vitality now," she adds.

LeRoy Hanneman, president of Del Webb, likes to think of the oldest boomers as "zoomers," who will continue to redefine both work and leisure in the later stages of life.

At the same time, Mr. Freedman cautions that social scientists still use the phrase "structural lag" to describe a gap between public attitudes and institutional policies.

"People's interests are dramatically different today," he says, "yet institutions are still thinking in ways that were appropriate 30 years ago."

In an era when a burgeoning dotcom culture favors young workers, for instance, age discrimination remains a subtle force everywhere. When companies downsize, it is still 50-somethings who are typically offered packages to leave, with little chance to reject the "offer."

For now, keep an eye on the zoomers - and some of their elders - who have accepted more enticing offers in Bush's Cabinet, where the average age is 58. As Freedman says, "It will be interesting to see if some of these Bush appointees will do things differently than they did when they were in their mid-40s. Will they approach the job as someone who has a longer view and a different perspective?"

Stay tuned as the answers unfold.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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