Missing from David Brooks’ Older People’s Revolution: Greater Work+Life Flexibility

David Brooks‘ thought-provoking piece in this morning’s New York Times calls older Americans on the carpet for, “Far from serving the young, the old are now taking from them.”  He then urges the older generation to use their time, energy and the internet to reverse this trend by starting a spontaneous national movement that demands changes in health care spending and the retirement age, “to make life better for their grandchildren.”

Okay, makes sense, but here’s the rub.  And I think Seth Godin said it best in a recent blog post:

“Baby boomers are getting old. Dreams are fading, and so is health. Boomers love to whine and we love to imagine that we’ll live forever and accomplish everything. This is the decade that reality kicks in. And, to top it off, savings are thin and resource availability isn’t what it used to be. A lot of people ate their emergency rations during the last decade. Look for this frustration to be acted out in public, and often.” (Emphasis mine)

This means that for David Brooks’ older people’s movement to take off a couple of things need to happen:

  • First, we must address the harsh reality that for many older Americans the demand for greater government support is grounded in real (or perceived) financial need.
  • Second, we have to get more creative.

Yes, expensive mandates like health care spending and Social Security require new approaches.  But what else can we do that would give older Americans non-governmental financial support, and greater time and energy for other parts of their life?   The answer: more later-in-career, work+life flexibility.

As part of the movement, older Americans should ban together, learn how to present a well thought-out plan, and propose creative, flexible work+life fit solutions to their employers.  This might include but is not limited to:

  • Reducing hours and shifting responsibilities. For example, the seasoned newspaper editor who reduced his schedule and took on responsibility for teaching younger reporters how to write compelling stories, faster.
  • Becoming a consultant who supports the business during specific busy periods, or in a particular area of expertise.  For example, experienced accounting firm partners who consult during busy season doing audit reviews.
  • Job sharing with another older worker covering a specific function. For example, two plant managers takeover shared responsibility for the quality review process at their facility.
  • Becoming part of a “coverage pool” that supports the business when people call in sick or go out on leave. For example, a group of experienced tellers are “on call” to cover a group of five offices in a region.  They work on average two to three days a week.

Another option would be for older workers to pursue an Encore Career where they earn money and give back.

Adding greater work+life flexibility to Brooks’ spontaneous, national movement would do more than just reduce the public financial burden on the younger generation.  Companies would retain valuable knowledge and experience.  And older workers, especially those “who ate their emergency rations over the past decade,” would make money and get time for other parts of their lives.  This is important because, quite frankly, I haven’t met too many 70+ year olds who are thrilled about the thought of going to work all day, everyday.

So why isn’t work+life flexibility part of the vision?  How do we get the movement started?  What do you think?


9 thoughts on “Missing from David Brooks’ Older People’s Revolution: Greater Work+Life Flexibility

  1. Cali, I’m intrigued by the options that you suggest here, and to me they make a lot of sense. If older/more mature workers want flexibility and can manage with temporary jobs that are not full schedules, I can see older workers as a great resource for covering the flexibility needs of full-time, mid-career workers.

    This also suggest to me, though, that we have to find ways to make reduced schedules and temporary work have some intrinsic meaning and extrinsic status for mature workers. Imaining myself in the shoes of a 62 yr old who cant afford (any more) to retire, I’d have to find some way(s) to get over my bitterness and my resentment that the American Dream didn’t quite work out for me.

    heck, as a Gen X worker, I might have to do that for myself.

    1. CV,

      Per usual, excellent insight. I think there are going to be stages of grief for older workers to work through. Ultimately they will come out on the other side and hopefully begin to advocate for new models of engaging as a worker later in their career that benefit them personally and their grandchildren, as Brooks’ encourages. But I don’t think most of them are there yet.

  2. I’m hearing that my children are going to live to an average age of 100. Retiring at 65 will become meaningless.

    My father was ousted from the work force in his late 50s and despite years of effort, couldn’t get back in. His was ‘written off’, all washed up before he was 60 in terms of the rigid traditional workplace around him at that time. He has finally found ways to redirect his talents in a volunteer capacity. But at massive fiscal and emotional cost. Is broke and demoralized how we want to leave our elders?

    Cali, you are spot on. Yes there are many creative ways around this and it takes bold organizational vision and brave would-be retirees to change the game – theirs and the workplaces around them. Thanks for taking this further.

    1. Chrysula

      I am so sorry to hear about your father. Older workers have so much to offer. Unfortunately, neither they nor their employers are thinking flexibly and creatively about what a later-stage career engagement could look like. As you point out, this is going to need to change. But I’m afraid the older employees themselves are going to have to make that change happen, because I think either it’s not on employers’ radar screens and/or those same employers are afraid to bring up the conversation.

  3. Cali,
    Why not also ask for more work-life flexibility for workers who are starting to take care of their older parents and relatives. Increased connection with one’s family and community costs little and is rewarding. Placing more value on the older generation and supporting them in non-monetary ways should be a priority for younger people too.

    Choosing or changing to a career or employer that allows people that flexibility takes initiative – something easier to do when they feel the weight of the community behind them.

    Great post in response to Brooks’ thought provoking column. Finally, a deeper discussion than the usual political finger-pointing…

    1. Hi Juliet,

      Yes, this is why the discussion about the need for greater flexibility must expand beyond the primary focus on child care. There are many reasons individuals need greater flexibility in how, when and where work is done and life is managed. And there are just as many business benefits employers realize from that same flexibility. Eldercare is a huge issue that is only going to grow. Unfortunately, like the need for greater flexibility in later-in-life careers and jobs, it has not taken its rightful place in the national dialogue. Thanks for making that point.

  4. Here is hoping some senior management types read this…they are the next group to have this issue and they are the ones who can change this paradigm now, not only for the older and younger workers…but for their future. (And mine!)

    Seriously…CEOs, VPs, CFOs – what does your future work world look like? Now is the time to think about it and you are the ones who can make your vision a reality.

    HR folks – what about you? Where are you in this…leading the charge, coming up with the business case, adding value to upper managment…or sitting on the sidelines awaiting direction?

    We are not the only society grappling with this issue: http://www.jobertalk.com/profiles/blogs/flex-jobs-a-priority-as. It will be interesting to see how it plays out and who leads the way.

    1. Leanne,

      So true, so true…where are they? Until the leaders who should be thinking about this issue NOW catch up, I am intrigued by Brooks’s call for older people to begin a spontaneous movement advocating change. Unfortunately, I don’t think most of them realize they could engage more flexibly with their jobs and they don’t know how to do it. Hopefully that will change.

  5. This could be the generation entertaining encore career stage that does get it. My Dad’s generation didn’t understand and didn’t have the mindset to challenge the way things were done. Such a loss. He knows better now and is reinventing himself in his late 60s.

    The CEOs et al have it all organized – they just play the corporate Board game. It’s got to get a little more creative than that And it will/is … I can’t imagine stopping and heading to Florida just because I’m 65 :-)!

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