On a recent podcast, Andi Simon, author of On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights, asked me to describe my path to becoming an assistant professor at the Boston College School of Social Work. I told a story about my move into gerontological social work—a fancy way of saying a person who works to improve the conditions and opportunities for current and future older people—at the age of 22, a time when many associate older generations with disability, dementia, and death.
Yes, rates of disability rise with age and yes, dementia is a serious, growing concern. And so far, death has a 100% success rate. But for most people, there is a lot of time between midlife and the end of life that has the potential to be filled with meaning, purpose, and engagement with family, friends, work, and community. Taking my lead from Encore.org founder Marc Freedman, life-course sociologist Phyllis Moen, and others, I am devoting my career to ensuring that more people can experience the benefits of this encore stage of life.
Some people thrive in this period, a stage that I am reluctant to bookend with chronological age, a poor indicator of life stage. But roughly speaking, the encore stage of life begins for many in their 50s and extends well into what is often considered to be old age. (And old age is relative: A few of my former 18-year-old students earnestly told me that the age of 30—a number I passed half a decade ago—was old.) Many in this encore stage of life are actively involved with their families and friends, engaged in volunteer and pro-bono work, and are working longer in encore careers or by becoming self-employed, entrepreneurs, or social entrepreneurs. A noticeable group has the blessings of education and wealth and have often avoided the extreme and cumulative effects of discrimination that our people, laws, and culture have wrought. With hard work and access to opportunities, those who experience the encore stage of life to the fullest are living lives with meaning, purpose, and passion, while serving as examples of what the developmental psychologist Erik Erikson called generativity—or the desire to give back to future generations.
I wear the encore ethos proudly and feel it in its true form. It is not just about keeping older people busy, or working longer, or creating a massive movement of older volunteers—although there are benefits to these ideas. Instead, it is about creating a culture that respects and celebrates the skills and experience that come with age while designing new ways to give back to future generations through paid and unpaid work, family time, and civic and political participation. And, as importantly, making it easier for those with fewer opportunities to experience this amazing and expanding stage of life for themselves. It is not—I repeat, it is not—about making people work longer, an easy shot at the encore movement that fails to see the complexity of and various avenues to economic and social engagement in later life. Instead, it is about creating a system that offers choice for those past midlife, who all too often feel constrained in their economic and social opportunities as they age. The choice to work, choice to volunteer, choice to spend time with family and friends, and choice to sit back and relax. Yet throughout our history, only a select few have had the opportunity of choice in later life. In my scholarship on self-employment in later life, I’ve called this an “opportunity gap.”
This is one reason why I am so excited to have been selected as an inaugural member of the Encore Public Voices Fellowship, a collaboration between Encore.org, the OpEd Project, and Ann MacDougall that aims to increase the diversity of voices on the issues of aging, longevity, and social justice. I look forward, in the next year and beyond, to increasing the volume and quality of my voice in the public sphere and advocating for new and more creative ways to engage those past midlife in their communities, modeling what I hope my current and future social work students will take on for themselves and their chosen issues throughout their careers.
Please join me on this journey. Follow me here at Encore.org, and check out other aspects of my work at the Boston College School of Social Work, LinkedIn, Google Scholar, and Twitter. I look forward to what is to come.
Cal J. Halvorsen, PhD, MSW, is an Assistant Professor at the Boston College School of Social Work and a 2018 Encore Public Voices Fellow.
Published: September 13, 2018