John Kerr spent most of his life working for Boston’s main public television station. After 40 years, he stuffed his possessions into a storage locker, sold his house, and headed for Wyoming—not to retire but to fulfill his dream of working in the national parks.

Today, Kerr is a summertime park ranger in Yellowstone, keeping people and bears away from each other. How did he get from WGBH fundraiser to part-time park employee? By talking his way into an internship designed for people almost half a century younger.

Kerr, and millions of others his age, are wending their way into uncharted territory, reaching the spot where middle age used to end and old age once began. They want work that matters, but they’re finding it’s a do-it-yourself project with few pathways and little help getting from what’s past to what’s next.

It shouldn’t be so hard. The surge of people into this new, encore stage of life—after midlife and before true old age—is one of the most important phenomena of the new century. Never before have so many people had so much experience—as well as the time and capacity—to do something significant with it. That’s the great potential payoff on all the progress we’ve made in extending lives.

But we’re not prepared to make the best of this gift. There are some organizations finding new ways to tap this talent. But given the size of the demographic shift, there aren’t enough of them, and they aren’t moving fast enough to take full advantage of it.

We need to see more:

  • Nonprofits that help people transition. The Transition Network was launched in 2000 by two social entrepreneurs united in their belief that women can help each other navigate just about anything. Today the group is a fast-growing, new-stage service lodge for women over 50 in 15 communities across the country, subsisting on dues as they help with life and career transitions. Other grassroots transition groups (Discovering What’s Next in the Boston area; Life by Design NW in Portland, Ore.; SHiFT in Minneapolis; and Arizona’s Tempe Connections) are growing.
  • Encore fellowships. With support from Hewlett-Packard and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Civic Ventures worked to create paid internships for people in the encore phase of life. Our hope was that these internships would help boomers transition to nonprofit careers, while helping nonprofit employers make the best use of their experience. A glowing, independent evaluation of the first year pilot led to program expansion.
  • School for the second half of life. Community colleges are increasingly focusing on the encore market not just for enrichment (think: watercolor classes), but also for life transition and job training, particularly in sectors where future jobs are: health care, education, the green economy, and services for the aging. Examples include Civic Ventures’ Encore College Initiative and the American Association of Community Colleges Plus-50 Project.
  • National service opportunities. National service programs, like the Peace Corps, VISTA and AmeriCorps, already have a track record of service as transition vehicles for young people. Some are reaching out and enrolling more individuals in their later years. Experience Corps, which engages people over 55 as tutors and mentors in urban public elementary schools, is just one example. There should be more.

With a generation of 50- and 60-somethings poised to make this difficult transition, the options shouldn’t be so fragmented or so hard to find. The variations described above—in planning, internships, education, and service—provide a glimpse of how it could be easier.

What else could people be doing to ease the big shift to a new stage of life and to make the best use of experience? I’d love to hear your ideas.

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