SAN FRANCISCO AND WASHINGTON — When the Florida Marlins needed a manager earlier this season, they surprised baseball fans by choosing Jack McKeon, a 72-year-old who had been fired by the Cincinnati Reds three years before. Most felt he was too old to come back, too old to relate to the Marlins' inexperienced young players, too old to turn around a losing team.
"We went out and showed them," Mr. McKeon said recently.
From May through the end of the season, the Marlins had the best record in baseball. Once in the playoffs, they upset the powerful San Francisco Giants, and then the talented (some say hexed) Chicago Cubs. Now McKeon and his team are playing the mighty New York Yankees in the World Series.
It doesn't matter which team you're rooting for, or even who wins. As one of the oldest baseball managers ever, McKeon has already scored important victories in arenas much bigger than sports stadiums.
First, he has provided an inspiring role model for millions who have retired, voluntarily or otherwise, but who long to return to some form of meaningful activity. Who wants to feel put out to pasture or, worse, be stuck in front of the tube for the duration? McKeon, who was reported to have been watching TV when Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria called, says he was thrilled to get off the couch. McKeon "isn't old," said Mr. Loria. "He's a wise old sage." And, by the way, "where does it say you can't work if you have too much experience?"
McKeon's story may prompt others to reject the idea that retirement means being sidelined. As McKeon said, "I realize now that regardless of your age, you can go out there, and if you're still capable of working, fight on. Don't give up."
Second, McKeon does a great job of reminding all of us that aging isn't what it used to be, not with better health, quality of life, and attitude. As 60-year-old Lauren Hutton notes on the November cover of AARP's magazine, "Sixty is the new thirty."
McKeon, similarly, says: "I don't feel my age. I feel 45, 48 now."
People now expect to live much longer and much better than ever before. The average American in 1900 lived to 47. Today, the average American lives to 77, reports the National Center for Health Statistics. The past century's addition of three decades to the average life span - an increase in longevity greater than the total change over the previous 5,000 years - is a staggering achievement. The question is what people will choose to do with this gift of time and what impactthose choices will have on society.
Third, thanks to McKeon and many others like him, people can begin to see that the graying of America poses great opportunities as well as challenges. Graying is about more than just paying, and the aging of America is about more than entitlements and the cost of supporting a much larger older population.
There is a potential tidal wave of talent to be unleashed as millions of baby boomers begin thinking about life - and work - after their midlife careers. Think of what could be accomplished.
Fourth, McKeon's success in turning around the fortunes of a struggling young Marlins team gives us a hint of the possibilities of older adults working intensely with young people. In fact, that's one area where older adults are already in demand - and not just to baby-sit the grandchildren.
Big Brothers Big Sisters, one of the nation's leading mentoring organizations, has stepped up its effort to recruit older mentors willing to provide a stable presence in the lives of struggling young people. Troops to Teachers, a federal program, recruits and deploys veterans of military service to launch second careers as public school teachers in hard-hit neighborhoods. And Experience Corps, a nonprofit national service program, mobilizes older adults to help teach children to read and develop the confidence and skills to succeed in school and in life.
There are untold numbers of older adults who have the will, talent, and time to be Jack McKeons in their own communities.
As individuals and as a society, we need to act a little more the way Loria did when he hired McKeon. We need to see the promise and potential of older adults to bring about truly exceptional results. Then we all win.
• Marc Freedman is the author of 'Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America.' John Gomperts heads Experience Corps, which provides opportunities for those 55 and older to participate in vital public and community service.