Baby boomers—those rock-’n’-roll–listening, Vietnam-War–protesting, birth-control–using, all-around-groundbreaking members of the post–WWII generation—have been at the forefront of societal and political change almost since the oldest of their ranks were born in 1946. Now ranging in age from 52 to 70, boomers are again doing things their way, this time in pursuit of more meaningful retirement years, or what University of Minnesota sociology professor Phyllis Moen (Ph.D. ’78) calls “encore adulthood.”
In her new book, Encore Adulthood: Boomers on the Edge of Risk, Renewal, and Purpose, Moen describes this bonus life stage, which is partly a consequence of longer, healthier lives, as coming sometime in the 50s, 60s, or 70s, sandwiched between career and family-building and old age. And like the much studied life stage called “emerging adulthood,” which happens during one’s 20s, it is a time of exploration and, for many, uncertainty. “There are no scripts for these new stages, and people have to make their way on their own; they have to improvise,” she says.
Moen, who holds the McKnight Endowed Presidential Chair in Sociology, used census data to chronicle the risks and opportunities of encore adulthood. But it’s the engaging and diverse interviews, interspersed with anecdotes of Moen’s own encore journey, that make the book such an enjoyable read. Moen talked about encore adulthood with Minnesota Alumni.
Why are boomers forging a new path during this life stage?
The 60- or 65-year-old of today is very different from his or her parents or grandparents. Boomers don’t feel old—and they’re not. But what we have now in this stage are two choices: either full-time, typically long-hour career work or full-time, irreversible retirement. Encore adults don’t want either one. What they want, often, is in between. So there’s an enormous group of people who have a lot of time and talent and more education than any previous older generation. They’re in the right place at the right time for creating this new life stage.
What are some factors that affect whether you’ll have a successful encore adulthood?
One is education, for sure. Educated people tend to know how to get the resources they need and are generally healthier. Many say they want to go back to school, but our schools, colleges and universities in particular, are designed for people aged 18 to 22. So we need to rethink lifelong learning in a way that’s not just learning for pleasure but also for learning new skills and preparing oneself for new occupations. The second thing is engagement—social relationships—but also engagement in some kind of ongoing activity. It could be paid or volunteer work, it could be helping to raise your grandchildren, but something that gives people a sense of purpose. And the third thing is a sense of control over your life. People often ask me, is retirement or work better for well-being, and I say the answer is yes to both, if it’s what you want. Being voluntarily retired is very different than those who have to retire because they can’t find another job or because they were going to be laid off.
What has to change?
We have to rethink the lockstep life course. We’ve been living in these three boxes since the middle of the twentieth century: first education, and then a lifetime of full-time work, and then the leisure of retirement. So we have to mix that up. We have to have more flexible jobs. I think that’s beginning to happen. I did a study of companies in the Twin Cities, and many of them are recognizing the need to be a lot more flexible to retain and keep their older workers. We need, as a society, a better safety net. In this new global economy, with new technology, people are going to be laid off in all stages of the life course. So we need ways to retrain people and to sustain them while they find other jobs. Finally, we’re going to have to fight age discrimination and recognize that abilities are not defined by age or life stage.
You’re still working. How have you negotiated your encore adulthood?
In a way, moving to the University of Minnesota [from Cornell University] was an encore job for me. I love my work and my colleagues; I’m one of those few who are playing what I call the long game—we want to keep working. Others want portfolio careers—they want to try something for a while and then try something else. I don’t think we should put people in a single box called “retired” anymore, but open up the possibilities for everyone to be all they can be at this life stage.