Yet there is a parallel universe where millions of older Americans are pondering their futures in different ways. They are wondering how they can give something back to a society that has helped them become comfortable and scratched most, if not all, of their material itches. America may be facing an uncertain future, but people who came of age in the 60s and 70s have had a pretty terrific run.
Marc Freedman is the head and founder of Civic Ventures, which is perhaps the nation's leading advocate for encore careers for aging baby boomers who want to practice what it calls "social entrepreneurism." For the past five years, Civic Ventures has gotten foundation funding to bestow what its calls the Purpose Prize upon 10 social entrepreneurs, all 60 or older, paying them awards of up to $100,000 each. The program also designates a large group of fellows each year, and uses the awards to demonstrate that life can indeed begin anew for many people once they've retired from their day jobs.
"It's not just the winners," Freedman says. "After five years, we've gotten close to 6,000 nominations," often about people doing truly remarkable things. "The entire program is just a fundamental challenge to the assumption that older people may be experienced, and they may even be wise, but innovation is the province of younger people."
"Creativity and innovation and entrepreneurship are distributed across the population," Freedman says. He cites the research and writings of University of Chicago economist David Galenson. Galenson makes an appealing case that older people not only make their fair share of creative contributions but might have a leg up in certain ways due to their wealth of experience and, often, a more deliberative approach to their work.
"We had a [Purpose Prize] winner a few years ago who started his program when he was 84," Freedman recalls. "When you think of how many older people we've written off prematurely and driven to the sidelines in the past, thank god we're changing our perceptions."
A major stimulus for encore careers, Freedman believes, is people's recognition that longevity gains mean they can have decades to pursue new ventures. "I think a lot of people who are hitting this juncture [in life], and have acquired enough expertise, realize there is enough time ahead for them to have a lot of time to build something new."
While it can be intimidating to venture into uncharted territory at any stage of life, Freedman says, the unpredictability of trying new things has proven to be a recurring story line of the social entrepreneurs who have become the most successful. He calls them "incremental" or even "accidental" entrepreneurs. "Many people never intended to wind up where they did. They just took it a step at a time and began to get engaged" in the venture, he says.
Another trait common to success is a tremendous emotional drive in support of a strongly held belief. Hear are the comments of some of this year's prize winners:
"We are going sneaky-smart under the tent of corporate America ... After a number of years when we have Fresh Artists' work throughout corporate America, it will begin to change the way we fund public education, the way we regard the most vulnerable members of our society."
—Barbara Chandler Allen, founder, Fresh Artists program for child artists in Philadelphia.
"I'm convinced these children and their parents have lifetime trajectories that are much different than they would have been if we hadn't been there ... When I get up in the morning that is something I think about. The older you get, the more important that becomes."
—Judith B. Van Ginkel, president, Every Child Succeeds program for at-risk mothers in Cincinnati.
"I saw children coming out of abused homes ... I saw children at school who didn't have a home to go to. It touched me. Someone needs to stand up for these children."
—Inez Killingsworth, founder of Empowering & Strengthening Ohio's People, a foreclosure counseling nonprofit.
Serving the homeless "gave me this inner drive that wouldn't let go ... I couldn't go back to just construction. It was nothing of real lasting value. If I could help someone, that was of lasting value."
—Allan Barsema, founder of Community Collaboration Inc. and Carpenter's Place for homeless people in Rockford, Ill.
"So many people want to do something good and make a difference for others—people who are in this stage of life who've had successful careers—and they don't know where to turn ... They say, 'I'm comfortable. I don't need money. What should I do?' My advice is to think about what moves you, then go do something about it."
—Dana Freyer, founder of Global Partnership for Afghanistan in New York, which has helped Afghan farmers plant 8 million trees.