Retired Parents Driving Each Other Nuts? Send Them Back to Work!

A growing market for fellowships that targets older workers connects private-sector expertise with nonprofits in need of help.

(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)  
National Journal
Sophie Quinton
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Sophie Quinton
Sept. 4, 2013, 9:29 a.m.

Nancy Diao works part time, for a small sti­pend, at a Bay Area edu­ca­tion non­profit. But at 60, Diao isn’t your av­er­age in­tern. She’s a former ex­ec­ut­ive who will spend her fel­low­ship year at Break­through Col­lab­or­at­ive serving as act­ing chief op­er­at­ing and chief fin­an­cial of­ficer.

Diao didn’t feel ready to re­tire when she left Wells Fargo last year. “I had a hard time say­ing ‘I’m re­tired,’ be­cause I’m not, men­tally,” she says. She didn’t want to re­turn to bank­ing, though; she wanted to find mean­ing­ful work that would still al­low her to spend time with her two young grand­chil­dren.

Mil­lions of baby boomers, like Diao, don’t want or can’t af­ford to check out of the work­force at age 65. And many are seek­ing a trans­ition in­to work that has a so­cial im­pact. The San Fran­cisco-based En­core.org helps older work­ers make that trans­ition by pair­ing them with non­profits in need of their private-sec­tor ex­pert­ise for a fel­low­ship year. It’s an ar­range­ment that fits the needs of all par­ti­cipants, and it has broad­er rami­fic­a­tions: As the pop­u­la­tion ages, keep­ing older work­ers in the work­force could boost the eco­nomy, al­le­vi­ate re­tire­ment in­sec­ur­ity, and ease strain on the so­cial-safety net.

In 2009, Pres­id­ent Obama signed a law that — in­spired by En­core.org’s mod­el — al­lowed for the cre­ation of fed­er­al fel­low­ships for those 55 or older in every state. Fund­ing has yet to be ap­pro­pri­ated for the pro­gram, but that hasn’t stopped En­core.org from cre­at­ing a 20-city net­work that placed 200 fel­lows last year. The or­gan­iz­a­tion es­tim­ates that 31 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans ages 44 to 70 want to find work with a big­ger so­cial im­pact. 

The era of long, va­ca­tion-style re­tire­ments is over, says Marc Freed­man, CEO and founder of En­core.org. “That ideal is no longer at­tain­able for in­di­vidu­als, and it’s not sus­tain­able for so­ci­ety. Who can af­ford a bal­loon pay­ment for 30 years of leis­ure?” he asks. Fed­er­al sur­vey data show that most full-time work­ers ac­tu­ally re­tire in stages — switch­ing to part-time work, or dip­ping in and out of the labor mar­ket as they age.

Older Amer­ic­ans are also col­lect­ing their So­cial Se­cur­ity checks later and work­ing at rates not seen since the 1960s. In the mid-1990s, less than a third of people age 55 and over were either act­ively em­ployed or look­ing for work. Today, the share is 40 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to the St. Louis Fed­er­al Re­serve.

Length­en­ing life spans and chan­ging life­styles ac­count for part of the shift. Amer­ic­ans who hit age 65 can ex­pect to live an­oth­er 20 years. Of­ten, their fam­ily re­spons­ib­il­it­ies are still on­go­ing: In 2012, one-third of baby boomers had both an eld­erly par­ent and a fin­an­cially de­pend­ent child, ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter

Chan­ging pen­sion plans are also part of the story. Few­er work­ers are en­rolled in defined-be­ne­fit pen­sion plans, which guar­an­tee monthly pay­ments after re­tire­ment, and more are en­rolled in 401(k) plans that grow with salary con­tri­bu­tions. “There’s a much big­ger pay­off to stay­ing in the work­force,” says Richard John­son, dir­ect­or of the pro­gram on re­tire­ment policy at the Urb­an In­sti­tute. “As you keep work­ing, you’re really im­prov­ing your re­tire­ment se­cur­ity, be­cause you’re able to add to your nest egg.”

With the av­er­age fel­low earn­ing $25,000 for a year of 1,000 hours of work, En­core.org’s fel­low­ships aren’t sup­posed to be fam­ily-sup­port­ing jobs but are in­ten­ded to help older work­ers move to the next stage of their work­ing lives.”The fel­low­ship is serving a lot of pur­poses of a per­son’s trans­ition,” says Leslye Louie, na­tion­al dir­ect­or of the En­core Fel­low­ship Net­work. “It could be go­ing from the for-profit sec­tor to the non­profit sec­tor, it could be go­ing from full-time work to part-time work, it could be mov­ing from one part of the United States to an­oth­er.”

Any­one can ap­ply for En­core fel­low­ships, but the ma­jor­ity of fel­lows so far have spent their ca­reers in the private sec­tor and have been able use that ex­per­i­ence to help build the ca­pa­city of non­profit or­gan­iz­a­tions, draw­ing on ex­pert­ise in areas like mar­ket­ing or per­form­ance man­age­ment. Or­gan­iz­a­tions af­fil­i­ated with En­core.org’s fel­low­ship net­work vet can­did­ates and set up in­ter­views with em­ploy­ers. Sti­pends are gen­er­ally provided by non­profit part­ners, al­though some fel­lows are sup­por­ted by former em­ploy­ers or by found­a­tions. Many fel­lows go on to take full-time or part-time non­profit jobs.

Just like fel­low­ships for re­cent col­lege grads, En­core fel­low­ships help work­ers get their foot in the door. It is gen­er­ally harder for older work­ers to find new jobs than young­er work­ers, and a bad eco­nomy has ex­acer­bated the trend. In 2011, the av­er­age job seeker over age 55 was spend­ing 35 weeks look­ing for a job, com­pared to 26 weeks for young­er job seekers, ac­cord­ing to fed­er­al stat­ist­ics. Age dis­crim­in­a­tion con­tin­ues to be a prob­lem older work­ers face. Some em­ploy­ers as­sume — falsely — that more-ex­per­i­enced work­ers are more ex­pens­ive, harder to man­age, and less com­mit­ted to their jobs, says Peter Cap­pelli of the Whar­ton School at the Uni­versity of Pennsylvania.

For Break­through Col­lab­or­at­ive, bring­ing on Diao as an en­core fel­low was a per­fect solu­tion to a press­ing prob­lem. The or­gan­iz­a­tion needed high-level ex­pert­ise to help man­age a big ex­pan­sion to new sites and new cit­ies but couldn’t af­ford to bring on a CFO at an ex­ec­ut­ive-level salary, says Laura Zahn, the non­profit’s chief aca­dem­ic of­ficer. Diao’s year­long po­s­i­tion will cost the or­gan­iz­a­tion just $35,000, and should see it through the crit­ic­al ex­pan­sion peri­od.

Since Diao’s fel­low­ship began this sum­mer, she has worked on elim­in­at­ing ad­min­is­trat­ive in­ef­fi­cien­cies and get­ting the or­gan­iz­a­tion more af­ford­able of­fice space. “I have a lot of ex­per­i­ence, so when I look at something, I can say, well this makes sense, this doesn’t make sense,” she says. Her col­leagues think she’s work­ing mir­acles. When Zahn ori­gin­ally looked at Break­through’s ex­ist­ing lease earli­er this year, she thought ex­tric­at­ing the or­gan­iz­a­tion from it would be a night­mare. But then Diao got on the phone with the leas­ing agent and put to use her years of ne­go­ti­at­ing with and man­aging people. “Something that could have been either con­ten­tious or im­possible be­came an op­por­tun­ity,” Zahn says, who has learned that Diao’s soft skills in deal­ing with people are as use­ful as the hard skills she brings to the or­gan­iz­a­tion. The learn­ing cuts both ways; Diao’s new col­leagues are teach­ing her about Face­book, Twit­ter, and Mi­crosoft Ex­cel.

Hav­ing Diao around has also had a calm­ing in­flu­ence on Break­through’s staff, who are al­most en­tirely in their 20s and 30s, Zahn says. “What I love about En­core is this bring­ing to­geth­er of gen­er­a­tions,” she says. In one of their first con­ver­sa­tions, Zahn told Diao: “You’re two years away from my mom’s age, and my mom is my best friend! I love hav­ing your wis­dom and ex­pert­ise.” Diao’s age wasn’t a prob­lem. It was an as­set.

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