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Back to College at Midlife

Ending a career will soon mark the start of a new life.

Traditional volunteering is not what leading-edge boomers have in mind. They want to be leaders and to help improve the world. In the Civic Ventures survey, respondents who thought they could have a major or moderate impact in their community were much more likely to want service opportunities than those who believed their impact would be small (55 percent versus 38 percent). The urge to serve in retirement is even stronger among the educated and affluent. Those who have achieved leadership positions want opportunities—significant opportunities—to use their experience, to accomplish something more satisfying than stuffing envelopes. "Connection" and "sense of purpose" loom large as reasons all 50- to 70-year-olds want to get involved in their communities, even more so for boomer women.

But for all the talk about what older boomers want to contribute, there are practically no ways to help them do it. How do they gain the knowledge and refresh their skills so they can end childhood hunger or save Newark? How do they use their considerable experience if they never earned a degree the first time around? When and where do they make the right connections?

College campuses—once the source of boomers' zeal for change—could be the launching pad to leadership, and to improving the state of the world. Of course, the educational model should feel right to accomplished adults, tailored to their life stage and experience. It shouldn't resemble the lecture halls, know-it-all professors, and musty textbooks of college memories. Sessions would be more like think tanks, in which faculty facilitate discussions about how to tackle major social needs. Participants could use the university as their sandbox, catching up on recent developments in their fields, and adding a language or a science skill. Their "dorms" would be two-bedroom apartments, with their spouses or partners as not just roommates but coparticipants in the program. Participants would be more like contributors than students, mentoring undergraduates or leading seminars for grad students. The presence of accomplished leaders could change universities in positive ways. And by focusing on the world's most daunting human problems, leaders will find direction for their next productive decades.

Earlier stages of higher education were oriented toward getting a job. Advanced Leadership Schools should be oriented toward creating a life business plan with high social impact. For their "dissertations," participants could, for example:

  • Design a foundation.
  • Create a new social enterprise or a business venture with a social purpose.
  • Prepare a plan to take a nonprofit to the next level of effectiveness.
  • Plan a run for public office, with positions on major social issues.
  • Write a book that can initiate a national awareness campaign.
  • Create plans to reshape a city by working on health, education, and jobs.

This kind of educational experience would reignite the passion of youth and marry it to the wisdom of experience.

A year or two of advanced leadership education is not for everyone. Not everyone has a graduate or professional degree, and many older Americans have never attended college. Once a leadership model is established, however, it will surely stimulate other schools to offer late-life higher education to help people transition to teaching or health services—or simply to complete education in a new field.

An Advanced Leadership School does something important for everyone approaching or looking back on 50. It establishes the third stage of life as a time with important tasks and responsibilities. And it restores higher education to its mission of serving society while supplying urgently needed leadership to make the world a better place. It turns an aging population from a burden to an opportunity.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter is the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor at Harvard Business School and an adviser to corporations and governments worldwide. A former editor of the Harvard Business Review, she is the author of 16 books, including her latest bestseller, "Confidence: How Winning Streaks & Losing Streaks Begin and End," (Crown Business, 2004).

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