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Disrupting Work

We need to develop a new, multigenerational workplace culture

AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins

AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins

En español | As we commemorate Labor Day this month, my thoughts turn to 76-year-old Charles Fletcher. I had the pleasure of introducing Charles at the Purpose Prize awards last October in Tempe, Ariz. Charles is a former telecommunications industry executive who is the founder and CEO of SpiritHorse International, a nonprofit that offers children living with profound challenges a sanctuary, where they can ride horses and work with specially trained therapists to discover their full potential — free of charge. For many, that includes walking, or speaking, for the very first time.

Charles started SpiritHorse in 2001 with three riders and two ponies. Today, he employs 20 salaried instructors and provides hour-long therapy sessions to roughly 400 riders every week at his Texas ranch, serving children with disabilities and at-risk youth as well as battered women and wounded veterans. He and his staff have trained and licensed 91 other centers in the United States, South America, Africa and Europe, making SpiritHorse one of the largest therapeutic riding centers in the world for people with disabilities. He calls his encore career the most meaningful work of his life.

Charles' story is just one reminder of how rapidly and dramatically the world of work is changing. It's not what it was, even as recently as a decade ago. More than 4.5 million Americans ages 50 to 70 have followed Charles' path to pursue encore careers, and another 21 million are interested in doing so.

At the same time, more people want to keep working past traditional retirement age. As a result, the workforce is aging. Employees old enough to retire outnumber teenagers in the workforce for the first time since 1948. According to our research, almost half of all employees ages 45 to 70 envision working well into their 70s and beyond. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that by 2022, nearly one-third of those 65 to 74 will be in the labor force.

While many older people work because they need the money, many want to continue to contribute to society and find meaning in their lives, and work does that for them. They often find that the factors that motivated them earlier — higher pay, more responsibility and climbing the career ladder — are no longer as important. They are more interested in having the flexibility to manage work and personal time.

These demographic changes are having a disruptive influence in the workplace. Some people see this as a problem; I see it as an opportunity for businesses and organizations to use the experience and wisdom that come with age, and couple them with the digital literacy and imagination that youth brings.

We're beginning to see businesses and organizations with four generations working side by side in the workplace. This requires young and old to develop a culture of learning and respect for what each brings to the work experience. It requires us to develop solutions that support the new ways of work.

We need to create opportunities that capture the wisdom, knowledge and experience of our older workforce and address the needs and desires of workers who are more likely to work from anywhere at any time. We need to find better ways to help employees transition into new careers without losing institutional knowledge. And we need to find better ways to exchange knowledge and provide mentoring opportunities across generations of workers, as AARP Foundation is doing with its Mentor Up program.

As the Gen Xers and millennials move through their careers, the lines between work and retirement will become even more blurred.

I think Richard Leider and David Shapiro, authors of the upcoming Life Reimagined book Work Reimagined, have a point when they say that work as we know it is coming to an end. But as Charles Fletcher reminds us, that's not necessarily a bad thing — it could be that by disrupting work, we will discover the most meaningful work of our lives. And that is indeed something to celebrate this Labor Day.

Jo Ann Jenkins is the CEO of AARP.