The "great wave of geezers" who are beyond midlife are often thrust into two camps: If they don't contribute in the work world, they are part of the dependency ratio; if they do work, they are displacing 20-year-olds, author Marc Freedman told a packed room at the Garden Court Hotel in Palo Alto on Friday.
But what people in their 50s, 60s and 70s do with the next 30 years of their lives could become one of the most important cultural and social shifts to hit Silicon Valley and beyond, he said during the Avenidas-sponsored event.
Freedman is the author of "The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife." As CEO and founder of Encore.org, he is spearheading the movement to give post-midlife persons "encore careers" that offer personal meaning, income and social impact.
With a radical change in life expectancy, aging generations are facing a dilemma of decades of living in retirement. But a large proportion of aging adults are creating "second acts," he said. Nine million people are in their second careers, which include volunteerism and giving; another 31 million want to do meaningful work for good, he said.
Embracing their life experience would be a boon for society, he added.
"Together, that's 400 million years of human capital that can be applied. ... It's a potential bonanza that needs a new vision."
Boomers, people who will be ages 50 to 68 in 2014, comprise 33 percent of the population, according to 2010 U.S. Census estimates. They are preceded by the so-called "silent" generation, now ages 69 to 86, who comprise 14 percent.
Freedman discussed how these generations are defying categorization: "There are oxymorons everywhere," he said.
He used himself as an example. A few years ago he became eligible for his AARP membership, he said.
"I had gotten my $7 off for our hotel room and we asked for two cribs for our two young children. We think about these life stages as fixed things, but it's a fiction," he said.
A shift in the meaning of aging harkens back to Jan. 1, 1960, with the opening of Sun City, a retirement community in the Phoenix area of Arizona, Freedman said. The community's founder, Del Webb, coined the term "the golden years."
Webb started the desert community with five home models, a recreation center, a golf course and shopping center. During its grand opening, 100,000 people showed up, and something unprecedented happened. In a country where aging is stigmatized, they were all having a good time in one place together, he said.
But somewhere along the way, the evolution of aging stalled. One of the great tragedies of our time is that older people have been told to pretend to be young people and to go play, Freedman said.
"Our whole vision of later life became a pale version of youth. It isn't sustainable to spend 30 years in a balloon payment of leisure," he said.
Increased longevity provides an opportunity to embrace the wisdom of life well lived, and society is squandering its best minds, he said.
"It's time to get back to those values," of experience and knowledge, he said.
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