Being part of the women’s movement back in the Seventies, when my involvement with Ms. magazine literally changed both my life and my career, gave me a chance to be part of something big and important. I felt very lucky to have participated in the struggle for social justice that was taking place on several fronts at the time. It never occurred to me that I would experience anything like it again. But recently I realized that I was signing on for another world-changing and life-changing group effort.
I had been invited to participate in a panel with some of my co-believers in the promise of Second Adulthood, including Marc Freedman, the founder of Civic Ventures, an organization that is pioneering what he calls “encore careers” the paths being chosen by increasing numbers of people who want to use their accumulated skills and life experience in paid jobs that are rewarding and socially meaningful. As the panel discussed the issues, the challenges, and the dynamic of the efforts to liberate the aging baby boom generation from prejudice and self-doubt, I saw many parallels with the early days of the women’s movement.
Not all that long ago, those of us moving past our 50th birthdays shared two secrets: first, that many of us (women in particular) were feeling better about ourselves than ever before in our lives, and second, that we were beginning to experience being marginalized and demeaned by the society we lived in weird ying and yang, made weirder for women by the age of rage and confusion known as menopause. When a critical mass of people have a secret they are afraid to share, they assume that they are either crazy or the only one who feels that way. A movement is born when they take the risk of sharing the truth about their lives. “The truth will set you free,” Gloria Steinem often says, “But first it will piss you off!”
A whole demographic of pissed-off people is a force to contend with. The energy we generate individually Margaret Mead has called the female version “postmenopausal zest” becomes stronger than the sum of its parts when we build a movement. To focus that force on making positive change, the first step is to define what is wrong and how it might be fixed.
For the women’s movement, some of the goals were: increased work options, economic independence, support and respect for care-givers, and a societal awakening to our potential as citizens. Though many conditions have improved beyond anything we imagined, the issues are surprisingly parallel for us now. In the process, though, we have changed; we have more experience in addressing social policy and many of us have more courage to speak up than we did earlier on in our lives. We have achieved a degree of what the sociologists call “mastery.” That should make a difference this time out.
The thing about contending with history is that the best-laid plans can’t forestall events. A movement has to be nimble enough to address surprises that challenge tactics and goals. Right now the economic downturn is changing the game. Any discussion about how work fits in to our lives has to be reframed when people who thought they would be working for satisfaction (bolstered by retirement benefits) have to scramble to hold on to a paycheck or find one; and when the next generation sees us as a threat not a resource in the job market.
It will take innovators, entrepreneurs, creative policy makers and political activists to make use of our efforts and steer us through these rough waters. Like other groups that have been mischaracterized and excluded, we are not the problem, but we are very much part of the solution. Pissed off as we are, we have the collective energy and the daring to lead the way. That’s what movements do.
Suzanne Braun Levine serves on the board of Civic Ventures. She is the author of Inventing the Rest of Our Lives and Fifty Is the New Fifty: Ten Life Lessons for Women in Second Adulthood. She is a contributing editor to More magazine.