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Still Imagining a Better World


It used to be youth was the field of dreams: today retirement offers yet another chance to dream.

“The boomers will be the first generation to see retirement as a period where you can do something significant,” says Marc Freedman, president of Civic Ventures and author of Prime Time (Public Affairs).

This is backed up by the Merrill Lynch New Retirement Survey (2004), which shows nearly 80 percent of baby boomers plan to continue working after the age of retirement – but in new ways and on their terms. For example, 42 percent want to rotate between work and leisure, while 56 percent dream of launching new careers.

Fifty percent of Americans age 50 to 70 want jobs now and in retirement that improve the quality of life in their communities (2005 MetLife Foundation/Civic Ventures New Face of Work Survey).

But who’s waiting for the boomers? Not the host of retired academics now pioneering post – midlife social entrepreneurship.

Take Frank Chew, 80, a psychologist, who worked at the University of Southern California for 20 years before retiring in 1990 as an administrator in the business school.

Now Chew volunteers with the American Red Cross. Working on the organization’s Critical Response Team – he has served at 32 sites around the country tending to people affected by disasters – the Twin Towers, hurricanes, wildfires and plane crashes.

“You have to keep yourself active – your mind and your body,” Chew says. “Maybe the best part of it all for me has been that I’ve met some terrific people, among my colleagues in the mental – health area and among my clients.”

Following 32 years with the institution, William Miller retired in 2000 as a professor of mathematics at Central Michigan University and returned to the family farm at age 70.

Miller’s first project was to plant a cornfield on a swath of land he had rented out for years. Using algebraic computations, he planted the field in the shape of the State of Michigan.

Last year, Miller took the project another step, building what he calls Michigan’s Field of Dreams – a baseball field in the middle of a cornfield like the one featured in the movie Field of Dreams.

Now, as many as 1,000 people a year, many of them school groups, come to see the corn map, pick pumpkins, and take a ride on the tractor – pulled barrel train, he helped to build.

Miller and his wife have set no entry fee for visitors to the farm – many people come free.

“Don’t get yourself wrapped up in something too demanding in case you want to get away,” Miller says. “And don’t worry about what you are getting paid. It’s really about the quality of your life,” he adds.

But some seeking “good work” find the doors closed.

That’s what happened to Dorothea Glass, a professor of medicine from Philadelphia, who retired to Palm Beach County in Florida.

Back home after a few months of R & R, she was ready for work. Glass approached her local hospital with an offer: “Put me to work in a way that makes use of my experience and my passion for medicine, and you can have my services for free of charge.”

The best the hospital could come up with was a new volunteer position – refilling water pitchers.

It’s a case of cultural lag, explains James Birren in Psychology and the Aging Revolution: “The gift of long life has come so quickly in the 20th century that societies, institutions and individuals are surprised.”

Eventually, Dr. Glass picked up a position at a newly formed free health clinic. But clearly, meeting people like Glass halfway will require putting an end to age – old ideas on retiring – essentially, reinventing retirement.

It won’t be easy.

“The gift of longevity is behind the new shift in the way people think about retirement,” Marc Freedman says. “Turning the situation around will require nothing less that a new generation of pathways, priorities, and policies,” he says.

Source: “Academics Pioneer the Third Age” by Marc Freeman & Phyllis Moon in The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 29, 2005.