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Third Stage Education

For socially conscious baby boomers who've topped out in one career, midlife education is a gateway to more meaningful work.

THE IDEA'S IN THE WIND: Ken Dychtwald identified "the third age" (it's that stage of life that comes after young and middle but before old). Marc Freedman focused on "encore careers."  Now higher education specialists are developing curricula to improve it.

Quick as ever to sense a trend and give it a name, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, in her latest Harvard adventure, is launching and directing the Advanced Leadership Initiative, a year-long pilot "third stage" educational program aimed at transforming experienced leaders into social entrepreneurs and philanthropists.

As a Harvard Business School professor, author (most recently of America the Principled: 6 Opportunities for Becoming a Can-Do Nation Once Again), and consultant, Kanter has shaped the ways organizations strategize, innovate, and manage change for more than a quarter century.  Her new venture, which she likens to the founding of graduate and professional schools in the late nineteenth century, takes into account the convergence of a new set of global challenges and the growing population of older energetic leaders who have met goals through a lifetime of work and now have a yearning to serve.

"We are seeking a new model that can stand on its own," Kanter noted in her 2005 Harvard Business School working paper on "Moving Higher Education to the Next Stage." She called for "a new model for universities: a third stage of prepared experienced leaders, in the period of their lives called "retirement," for service activities addressing societal problems."

Starting Strong. As of February, the first class of 14 "leader-learners" has descended upon their individualized cross-disciplinary incubator cum think tank at Harvard As Kanter puts it, they bring with them priceless assets such as "experience, connections, reputations, resources, and convening power." Among them: Former astronaut Charles F. Bolden, Jr.; Hans Ulrich Maerki, the retired chair of IBM Europe/Middle East/Africa; Vivian Lowery Derryck, a former senior official at the United States Agency for International Development; Susan Leal, a former public utility official from California; and Dr. Charles R. Denham, a physician-entrepreneur from Texas.

The year-long program draws from the resources and faculty of Harvard's five professional schools: business, education, government, law, and public health. The goal is to prepare a new cohort of senior leaders for a career of service: to start a foundation, campaign for public office, start a foundation or a social enterprise. And it's tempting to think that Kanter, born in 1943 and an exemplary senior leader herself, is setting forth on an "encore" career as she nurtures this new enterprise from conception to reality.

A Third Stage Education Bill? Harvard's pilot program is the latest step in the flowering of the new "third stage" of university education. It's a growing phenomenon that has been emerging for several years, as the roughly 75 million baby boomers have begun to hit their late fifties and early sixties.

Community colleges around the country have been retooling for the third stage of education, responding to demand with courses and degree programs. Ten "boomer schools" in communities across the country, from Baltimore to Ann Arbor to Portland, have been testing innovative ways to prepare boomers in search of encore careers in education, health care, and social services with support from the nonprofit Civic Ventures.

In the months ahead, the new Obama administration also will be challenged to come up with educational programs to help newly unemployed midlife workers as well as those who have taken retirement packages from their jobs. On the horizon is the possibility of a "Third Age Bill," not unlike a GI Bill, that would "help millions of Americans launch encore careers through tuition assistance and retraining programs," notes Gara La Marche, CEO of Atlantic Philanthropies, which has funded Civic Ventures.

While it might at first seem that during this time of recession education might be or seem to be a luxury, in fact it might be the best way to retool for an encore career and a second wind for a depleted retirement fund. Already between 5.3 and 8.4 million Americans aged 44 to 70 have launched "encore careers," combining income and personal meaning with social impact, according to a 2008 MetLife Foundation/Civic Ventures career survey. (And it's a happy group: 84 percent say they are highly satisfied, and 94 percent say they see positive results from their work.) Another 50 percent in that 44- to 70-year-old age group are interested in encore careers, with education, health care and the nonprofit sector being among their top choices.

Looking for "Meaningful Work." It's not surprising that baby boomers, who are lifelong pathfinders, have been the pioneers of a third age with many options, including mid-career switches into teaching, charity work, volunteering, and global problem solving. As they have discovered the fun and wisdom of going back to school at midlife, they have proven that education can be an energizer and catalyst for transitions to encore careers.

Having cut their teeth on social consciousness, it's also not surprising that many boomers are returning at midlife to earlier passions, equipped with expertise and authority and the urge to reframe, revise, or revive the dreams they may have thought they'd put behind.

"Women and men in their fifties and sixties often ask themselves big questions: What is important to me? Am I doing something that I think is meaningful? and What do I want to do with the rest of my life?," says Gail Rentsch, author, with The Transition Network, of Smart Women Don't Retire—They Break Free: From Working Full-Time to Living Full-Time, published by Springboard Press.  "The best way to begin to answer such questions is to look at the intangible benefits we get through work—things such as having an identity, attaining power and prestige, working with others, and feeling a sense of accomplishment.  As we identify such intangibles, we can begin to recognize those that are truly important, those that no longer resonate, and those that are missing from our experiences. For instance, we may realize that working toward goals that focus on increasing our employers' bottom line aren't fulfilling our desire to give back, mentor others, and make the world a better place. This need to do something worthwhile — to contribute to a wider good — is what drives many of us to seek jobs in the non-profit world."

Rentsch adds, "Today's baby boomer women don't think of themselves as retiring. With lots of energy, know-how, and a well-honed ability to be involved in more than one thing at a time, we see our future as a time of more, not less, when personal growth and risk-taking has a new urgency."

Pioneering the Midlife Pivot. Inspiring models for education as a catalyst for midlife reinvention include women like Sally Bingham, winner of a 2007 Purpose Prize and one of the Weather Channel's Forecast Earth 2008 Hot List, along with Google, T. Boone Pickens, and Barbara Kingsolver.

The Rev. Canon Sally Bingham, 66, is now environmental minister for San Francisco's Grace Cathedral. "I hope to be an inspiration for others who get to retirement age," she says. "I hope it comes through the joy I feel about life and this ministry. It's tremendous fun to be doing what I'm doing. I get up in the morning and think, 'What exciting thing is going to happen to me today!'"

Education was the foundation that made Bingham's midlife career dreams come true. Bingham married after high school and raised a family of three. At 45, she says, "I had a burning desire to connect religion and the environment." She wanted to go to seminary but learned she had to go to college first. So she got a BA at the University of San Francisco, spent three years in seminary and three years as a postulant. She was ordained at 55.

While still in seminary, she founded the Regeneration Project, a nonprofit to connect faith and environmental issues. Next came the Interfaith Power and Light Campaign, a nonprofit providing religious organizations with information about going green. It's now active in 4,000 congregations in 28 states, with a full agenda, from film screenings like Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," to tutorials explaining how to save money on electricity, and DVDs like "Lighten Up: A Religious Response to Global Warming."

Thanks to the campaign, Grace Cathedral put solar panels on its southern exposure of the building as a model for houses of worship throughout the country, and the Interfaith Power and Light Campaign recently launched an online carbon footprint calculator and advice on how to reduce it ( A teach-in on global warming was set up at congregations throughout the country for February 5, the same month  her new book, Love God Heal Earth, with 21 essays from religious leaders of all faiths, is due out from St. Lynn Press.

"I was raised or born with an 'I can do it' gene," Bingham says. "I have never said no." In today's new "Yes, we can" culture, she says, even those without that gene can go back to school to follow their passions.

Using Harvard Business School lingo, Bingham's story makes a fine case example.

Jane Ciabattari  is a fiction writer and book critic as well as a journalist and frequent contributor to NRTA Live and Learn.

Watch for new stories every Thursday in Live & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community: Celebrating learning as a creative lifestyle.

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