National service programs – most notably the Peace Corps, the most memorable innovation introduced in President Kennedy’s “Ask not” speech – were designed primarily for young people. Now those ’60s-era youth – the very people the Peace Corps was created to engage – are looking for another round of service with the same motivations that attracted them four decades ago: to give back, to have an adventure, to acquire experience, and to gain the credentials and credibility to launch a new chapter of life and work.
Why not give them a second chance to serve – a kind of “encore” service for those who are past middle age but far too active to be considered old? Service opportunities for those over 50 could create a win-win of staggering proportions.
Take the case of Gary Maxworthy. Forty years ago, Mr. Maxworthy was an idealistic young man who wanted to heed JFK’s call to service, but he had a family to support. Instead of joining the Peace Corps, he launched a career in the food-distribution business, where he worked for more than 30 years.
As Maxworthy approached 60, his wife’s passing sent Maxworthy into a period of soul-searching. As he stepped back and asked questions about what matters most and what’s next, he thought a lot about his old Peace Corps dream and the prospect of returning to it. In the end, he chose a more manageable domestic option, VISTA, part of the AmeriCorps national service program.
VISTA placed Maxworthy at the San Francisco Food Bank, where he discovered that the food bank – like food banks throughout the state of California – was primarily giving out canned and processed food. It was all they could reliably deliver without food spoiling.
Maxworthy knew that growers in California were discarding tons of fruits and vegetables that were blemished and not up to supermarket or restaurant standards. Bringing his experience to bear, Maxworthy launched Farm to Family, a program that in 2010 distributed more than 100 million pounds of fresh food to needy families in California.
Without question Maxworthy would have done a lot of good as a 22-year-old Peace Corps volunteer, maybe teaching reading or helping out in another worthwhile way. And that experience might well have shaped other life decisions along the way. But would he have been able to do something comparable to developing a system to distribute 100 million pounds of food to hungry people a year?
Today we’re in a position to reap the benefits of that boomer experience thousands of times over. Every day, some 8,000 boomers turn 60, reaching this new territory that I call the “encore” stage of life between middle age and old age. It’s one of the most important phenomena of the new century.
Never before have so many people had so much experience and the time and the capacity to do something significant with it. That’s the gift of longevity, the great potential payoff from all the progress we’ve made in extending lives.
How can we make the best of it? The 2010 Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act calls for expanding the number of encore-stage AmeriCorps members – in effect, to intentionally and intensively integrate the program by age. The law sets a goal of 10 percent for the proportion of AmeriCorps members over 55, which could soon mean 25,000 individuals if AmeriCorps, the nation’s largest signature service program, reaches full strength.
But why stop at 10 percent? Why not a quarter or a third or even half? If more people will soon be over 60 than under 20, shouldn’t these Americans have just as many opportunities to serve – and to transition to new careers – as their younger counterparts?
Instead of talking about cutting national service programs, it’s time to invest in them. It’s time to make the best use of the experience that’s so clearly out there.
– Marc Freedman, author of The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife, is the founder and chief executive officer of Civic Ventures, a think tank on boomers, work, and social purpose. He is also the co-founder of Experience Corps, a nonprofit that places AmeriCorps members over 55 as tutors and mentors in underserved elementary schools across the United States