A retiree’s mind is a terrible thing to waste

Do you remember the slogan: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste”? It was the rallying cry of an ad campaign launched by the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) in the early 1970’s to increase opportunities for African Americans to attend college. This iconic campaign called attention to the vast potential that was being lost because of the inequity of participation in higher education.

A similar rallying cry is needed today – and not just in America. This time, we need to call attention to the lost potential of an even larger segment of the world’s population – the 900 million people over 60 years of age whose minds are no longer being fully utilized in our broader society.

Thought leaders from public policy, business, academia, philanthropy, and media gathered earlier this year in Los Angeles for the Purposeful Aging Summit to discuss just that – how the world could benefit from using the wisdom, experience and commitment of those developed minds to address some of society’s largest problems.

With our increased longevity, it is more important than ever to see retirees as a global asset. The Summit, sponsored by the Milken Institute’s Centre for the Future of Aging, highlighted the many benefits of doing so:

A growing body of research suggests that aging with purpose offers solutions not just to problems inherent in aging itself, but to an array of other challenges that demand attention. Older adults can infuse societies with transformative social and economic benefits. Through their insight and ability to mentor, they help the young learn and develop. As caregivers and volunteers, they help one another age with dignity and provide invaluable support. In work settings, they bring perspective, experience, and emotional stability.

Having a purpose, or the fear of not having one when they leave their job, is a recurrent theme with the people I coach as they transition to retirement. Being able to contribute and feel relevant is a source of meaning for most of us and recent research is showing how important that is for our quality of life as we age. While about one-quarter of retirees turn their talents to volunteering or encore careers, the vast majority of people in this age group go untapped.

The summit focused on the many physical and cognitive benefits that older people gain when they provide service to others, and the broad social and economic opportunities that society derives from their contributions.

Purposeful aging can promote health, provide needed services and supports, fill charitable coffers, and, in the process, reap enormous economic benefit.

There is some exciting work being done on this front by American organizations like Encore.org’s Generation to Generation program, Senior Corps Foster Grandparents program, AARP’s Volunteer Matching program and The Conscious Elder’s Network that focus on putting retirees’ energy, knowledge and skills to work for social purpose. I encourage you to check out the inspiring mentorship, inter-generational, and social justice programs these organizations offer that are benefiting thousands of older adults and younger people alike. Retirees are gaining a sense of purpose by using their capabilities to improve the lives of future generations.

I searched for similar programs offered through Canadian organizations, but found very few and not of the same national scope or formal structure of matching retirees’ skills and capabilities to the various community needs. I am hoping there are some in the works. Please share any that you know of in the comments below.

The economic and social benefits of such programs are clear. So, why aren’t there more of them? Why aren’t we emulating and scaling those successful programs already in existence? There certainly isn’t any shortage of issues to address, nor shortage of minds entering this retiree cohort (1,000 a day in Canada, 10,000 a day in the US).

Just as one of the goals of the UNCF campaign was to overcome the racist beliefs that held back black youth from attaining a college education, this Summit targeted the ageist beliefs that are deeply ingrained in our society that limit elder participation, and reduce human dignity and hope, to the detriment of us all.

In the Power of Purposeful Aging summary report, participants recognized the upside of changing the culture and the need to reframe our view of aging so that all this vitality and productivity is not lost:

Older adults are not done with the world, but the world, cocooned in a culture that extols the virtues of youth, may be done with them. Ready for new beginnings, they are routinely shuffled to the sidelines and the shadows of decline. If older adults are to find meaningful roles that fulfill their enormous potential, attitudes must change.

If we are going to tap into and fully benefit from the vast intellectual and social resource our retirees represent and not let their creative and vibrant minds go to waste, the report states that we must first address our ageist views and tell a new story about human potential at all ages.

Just as the UNCF campaign became “emblematic of some of the best values of America — a belief in equal opportunity, in education, in human dignity and hope,” my hope is that we will look back on 2017 as the turning point of when we applied the same values to getting older, and began a new era of inter-generational collaboration and contribution.

IMAGE: The Power of Purposeful Aging summary report; Milken Institute.

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