Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Working Longer, "Encore Careers," and Civic Duty

My local paper carries Ellen Goodman's syndicated column. While she's an articulate writer, I often wonder what planet she's living on.

Scratch that. I know. She lives in Boston and summers at the Vineyard. You know, like regular folk.

Her latest column is "The Benefits of Working Longer" and I can't figure out whether she is for it or against it. I think this is her thesis:

But if the downturn comes with the seeds of generational conflict over jobs, it also carries packets of social change. There is a chance for the boomer generation to make a virtue - or a revolution - out of the necessity of working longer.

We already know that a growing corps of people in their 50s and 60s are more interested in renewal than retirement. Marc Freedman of Civic Ventures talks about "encore careers" for those who want to leave their midlife jobs and move into work with social value. (emphasis added-ed.)

Now, he says hopefully, "The one benefit of this economic crisis is to drive home the reality that longer working lives are going to be necessary and desirable. If we can give people a sense that contributing longer is not another set of years at the grindstone but an opportunity to do something they can feel proud of, we'll have accomplished something significant."

I find those words "social value" especially chilling. Who determines the social value of a particular job? I happen to enjoy my job and I help many customers make full use of the data my company provides, data my customers use to expand their businesses and hire more people. Or import more cargo, which provides jobs for Teamsters and stevedores and clerks and cargo inspectors and... You get the idea. Doesn't that have "social value"?

Okay, how about this: some of my customers are non-profits--universities and business libraries and governmental agencies who are interested in trends in the movement of goods between the U.S. and the rest of the world. Agencies that are using the data my company provides to allocate public funds--funds taken from hard-working Americans in the form of taxes. Surely that has "social value"!

And I am proud of the work I do. I'm good at it, a fact my company recognizes by paying me pretty well.

Again, from Ms. Goodman's column:

The bipartisan Serve America Act coming to the Senate floor not only expands AmeriCorps with its young and old population but provides model fellowships in 50 states that would help older adults enter areas where they're needed, such as education or the environment. (emphasis added --ed.)

Has Ms. Goodman been inside an urban school--or even a suburban one--lately?

About ten years ago, when our local school district first started having serious financial problems, our city council invited the public and school administrators to a meeting to brainstorm solutions. DS#1 was a student at the local high school and had mentioned the drug-dealing he saw going on in the back of his classroom. I mentioned it at the meeting and my observation was seconded by the Student Body President.

The principal denied it was happening: "We have a zero tolerance policy and all of our teachers adhere to it."

In discussing this with Hubs, I commented, "You know, if there were two 6' tall, 200-lb. male students dealing in the back of the classroom, I'm not so sure I would be willing to take them on."

Now that I'm older, I'm more sure that I wouldn't confront them.

Around that same time, a local third grade teacher was stabbed by a parent during a conference.

These incidents happened at the "good" schools in our district.

Yeah, that's where I want to work when I'm 60.

No mention is made of volunteer work, a very traditional, a very American way of doing meaningful work. Volunteer coaches and Scout Leaders. Volunteers who restore creeks and historic sites. Who plant flowers, set up flags along the sidewalks on holidays, paint murals on bridges. Who collect canned foods and warm clothes, sing to those in nursing homes, serve Thanksgiving dinner to lonely seniors, make tray favors for Meals on Wheels. Who drive the vans delivering those meals or take folks to medical appointments or check in on the seniors living alone.

You know, work with social value that isn't organized by the government, that doesn't require a huge bureaucracy.

Update: The Anchoress is thinking along the same lines, it seems!