Q. Maybe the problem is that we think of the future strictly in terms of youth. What can older people contribute that younger people can't?
A. People moving into the encore years have experience that twentysomethings don't. But they also have fewer years ahead of them — and this has motivational implications. You ask different questions when you realize that the time ahead is finite; your priorities change. And many people now also have enough time and energy to do something with that unique perspective.
Q. Whereas before they might not have.
A. Right. In the past it was almost as if wisdom and experience were wasted on the old. By the time you reached the point where you'd figured things out and were motivated to focus on the most important things in life, you were too worn out to do anything about it. Maybe you could donate a park bench. But people now are in a position to live a legacy.
Q. So it boils down to experience and perspective?
A. No, it's really more than that. It's not just "experience" and "wisdom" that we're losing. We're also losing a vast potential source of creativity in society. There's growing evidence, for instance, that experimental innovators bloom later in life, and by systematically sending so many people to the sidelines, convinced that they're over the hill, we may have been writing off a whole swath of people who are prepared to do their best work.
Q. You tell the story of Meredith, who changes course in her 50s to become an environmental activist, and she says that making a change like that at that age "is like walking the high trapeze without a net." What's the difference between doing something like this at 55 and doing it at 25?
A. Meredith had to downshift in an extreme way to provide herself that net — she moved out of her expansive house and into a garage. At this stage of life, you have more financial obligations, and you also have higher expectations of comfort and security than you did when you were young. It's a more jarring transition.
Q. Which means it's not just a matter of economics, it's also about creating a different set of social expectations. Otherwise, people are all alone in this.
A. That's exactly it. You're without a net economically, especially when it comes to health insurance, mortgages, other obligations. But maybe even more important, you're without a net psychologically. There's an expectation that you work hard through your middle years, then you reach a certain level of achievement and you stay there until you disengage and retire … so to be starting out again at 55 or 60 or 65 requires an enormous amount of resilience and a thick skin.
Q. You write that we need "a whole new set of social institutions, market innovations, enlightened policy, and a revised culture." What do you think most needs to happen?
A. We need a gap year for grown-ups. And it will probably involve the same three elements that young people use in their transition to adulthood: education, internships and service. People need a period of renewal and exploration; they need time to develop new skills and explore possibilities. And they need to be able to do it without sneaking in the back door via internships meant for young people or raiding their children's college funds.
Glenn Hodges lives in Colorado.