Sarah Kershaw of The New York Times called me recently to ask about the impact on the psyche of baby boomers of all the celebrity deaths of the past few months. From Michael Jackson (50) and Farah Fawcett (62), through Patrick Swayze (56) and Mary Travers (of Peter, Paul, and Mary, 72), to icons of our boomer childhoods like Walter Cronkite (92) and Edward M. Kennedy (77) – where have all the flowers gone?

To me, at 51, these premature deaths and long lives represent both the compression and expansion of time, the realization that life is finite along with the likelihood that we will live much, much longer. Most of us who are crossing into our 50s today can expect to live well past 80. Time matters more, in a way that we didn’t realize in our 20s, and we have enough time to do something significant, something that matters. We get a second bite at the apple, with a new perspective.

“This is the first time so many have simultaneously had an awareness of death and the prospect of a whole new act,” I told Kershaw. “Never before have there been so many people who have so much experience and the time left to do something with it.”

Indeed, Kershaw’s question about “boomers” brought up another question. What, after all, does the Baby Boomer label tell us, and others, about our generation, other than the years when its members were born, 1946 to 1964, and its booming proportions.

The Greatest Generation is remembered for what it accomplished, the legacy of freedom it left for those who would follow, not for when its members were born (1901-1924). What will be our legacy, when the torch has passed on to X and Y, and the generations not yet named? Will we accomplish enough to be known for something more than demographics.

The combination of impending mortality and tremendous potential, multiplied by tens of millions, is really the heart of the boomer psyche. Millions of people, for the first time in American history, have both the time lived (experience) and the time left to do something that matters. Time enough to transform the legacy of a generation. New York Times writer Michael Winerip calls his fine weekly column on the boomer experience “Generation B.” But if we make the most of this unique opportunity we stand to be remembered not just as the generation that was very large, but as Generation E, the encore generation. When they write our generation’s obituary, let them say that we seized the gift of insight and of time, and used that unique combination to leave the world better off for future generations.

Marc Freedman, founder and CEO of Civic Ventures, is author of Encore: Finding Work that Matters in the Second Half of Life.

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