Leadership is not the private reserve of a few charismatic men
and women. It is a process ordinary people use when they are bringing
forth the best from themselves and others.”
—James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, The Leadership Challenge
Over the next few decades, the United States and the world will experience the most dramatic age shift in history. By 2030, one out of every three Americans, or 107.6 million individuals, will be 55 or older (Experience Corps). Aging Americans will present a number of challenges, including economic stresses, increased demand for healthcare, and the need for new and different community amenities and services.
At the same time, even before the major impact of this demographic change, many individuals struggle to maintain adequate income, address educational and healthcare needs, secure adequate transportation and housing alternatives, and address other issues central to their well-being. Communities are confronted with these issues at a time of increasingly tight budgets for public services and few funding alternatives. To address these tough issues in our communities, those who are impacted by the problems need to be a part of defining the problems and contributing to the solutions. This is particularly true of the growing ranks of older adults.
The American Society on Aging (ASA) and others have reported extensively on the benefits of civic engagement for our communities and for older adults. “How Communities Can Promote Civic Engagement of People 50 Plus” (Henkin and Zapt, Generations, 2006-07) points out that “Tapping the skills, knowledge and experience of older adults . . . may be our most effective strategy for revitalizing communities and promoting successful aging.”
Solutions start with people taking an active role in managing their own lives, including financial, physical, and emotional fitness. Beyond that, older adults possess extensive skills and experience and many of them have the time and the willingness to commit energy toward improving their lives and the lives of those around them. Characteristics that many older adults possess—persistence, patience, judgment, and an ability to develop new approaches to solving complex problems—are just what are needed in our communities today. By being engaged, older adults build social capital in our communities and are likely to be mentally and physically healthier.
Yet, there are few avenues for people 50+ to stay connected, be involved, or develop the skills they need to contribute effectively in their communities. Evolve: Re-igniting Self & Community provides an opportunity for people 50+ to use their skills, remain relevant, and contribute to something bigger than themselves.
Overcoming Ageism; Creating Legacy
In the 1960s, the sheer number of baby boomers created an emphasis on youth that in some ways continues to haunt us today. Remember the slogan, “Never trust anyone over 30?” Unfortunately, we seem to have created the very culture that now offends us with its ageism. We are suffering from our own creation.
We have a chance to reverse ageism and create a new legacy for our generation. One way to do that is to step up and become leaders in our communities. As older adults, we can afford to spend less energy on promoting ourselves and our careers and more energy on solving our community problems. As experienced individuals, we have a great deal to contribute. Our wisdom is a national resource. And as in the 1960s, our numbers give us power. That power can make a tremendous difference to our society if we use it for the common good.
The characteristics that result in creative problem-solving—curiosity, playfulness, eagerness, fearlessness, warmth, and energy—are not solely the traits of the young. In Geeks and Geezers, authors Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas make a convincing case that older, experienced leaders can combine the value of experience with the positive qualities of youth. After interviewing over 40 leaders, half under age 35 and half over age 70, to understand the characteristics of transformational leaders, they found that whether a geezer or a geek the characteristics of success are the same—being open, willing to take risks, hungry for knowledge and experience, courageous and eager to see what each new day brings.
We are at the beginning of a new imagination of the role of older adults in our society. As boomers and older, we have an opportunity to shape that imagination in a way that creates meaningful lives for ourselves and contributes to the well being of society as a whole. Will we take the challenge?