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Back to College at Midlife

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

Spring 2012. Colleges and universities have sent out their acceptances and rejections. Anticipation (and anxiety) strike older Americans nationwide as they check their mailboxes or click on admissions websites. This year the excitement over college is not for their children or grandchildren but for themselves.

About to step down from their companies, law firms, hospitals, or government posts, these eager 50-plus leaders are planning to step up to their next productive years of significant service. They hope to enter the Advanced Leadership School at their favorite university. They can't wait to grab a book bag and head to campus.

Imagine that future: fifty- and sixtysomethings gathering on a college campus for a year or two of advanced study to prepare for the rest of their lives. They want to eradicate diseases, end poverty, reverse global warming, raise literacy rates, create ventures to produce peace in the Middle East—there's no cause too big. They have drive and energy; they have a treasure trove of wisdom, experience, and connections. Now, they want the knowledge and credentials to take their leadership to the next level.

Someday soon, going to a university at 50 or 60 could be the norm. Someday, every major university will have graduate schools designed specifically for accomplished professionals who want to make the transition from their primary income-earning careers to their years of flexible service. Someday, corporations will include tuition for these schools in retirement packages and will support scholarships through their foundations. Someday, the federal government will offer tuition grants and tax breaks for attending universities after 50, to support new forms of philanthropy and public service that truly solve problems.

That's the vision I'm developing with Rakesh Khurana, Nitin Nohria, David Gergen, and our colleagues from five professional schools at Harvard University. The idea is a new stage of higher education—call it "even higher" education—that turns experience into significance and produces a pool of much-needed leaders to improve communities, nations, and the planet. Higher education can redefine later life as a time for social entrepreneurship and public service.

This isn't going back to school. It's using school to move forward. Retirement options once ran the whole gamut from A to B. The two most common pictures were a life of aerobics and athletics (golf in particular), or running a bucolic bed-and-breakfast. Think of it as the Gerald Ford model. Now a more appropriate aspiration is to be a Bill—Clinton or Gates—and have the impact of a Jimmy Carter by starting a foundation and championing social causes. New models can include retired Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca's campaign to find a cure for diabetes, or actor Paul Newman's business venture to raise money for charity.

More and more Americans are expressing an interest in performing community service, but those who came of age in the 1960s seem to lead the charge, according to a recent survey by the MetLife Foundation and Civic Ventures.

Baby boomers, now starting to turn 60, grew up under post-World War II child-centered philosophies, which gave them a clear sense of their own importance. The influence of Dr. Benjamin Spock was believed to be one reason the first wave of boomers so naturally felt like world changers back in the 1960s. Having been told from birth about their own significance, they aren't going to feel less significant simply because they've hit a career ceiling called retirement age.

The Civic Ventures survey shows that a majority of Americans between the ages of 50 and 70 want to benefit their communities by helping the poor, the elderly, and children, or by improving quality of life through the arts or the environment. Leading-edge boomers, ages 50 to 59, are the most emphatic about this. Many say they want to switch to a career in service now, not just in retirement. And nearly two thirds of those who never expect to retire say they're interested in a service career.

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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