The Big Shift

Book Review by Wendy Bay Lewis

Freedman, M. (2011). The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife. PublicAffairs: New York, NY. 256 pages.


Everyday, 8,000 Americans turn 60 and many can expect 100-year life spans. The length of retirement for centenarians could be over 30 years. Not everyone finds the prospect of three decades of leisure time enviable, much less sensible. For Marc Freedman, author of The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife (PublicAffairs: 2011, 256 pages), it is also an egregious waste of the talent and experience accumulated by nearly 80 million baby boomers.


Freedman is the founder of Civic Ventures, a think tank on “boomers, work and social purpose.” He is the leading proponent of the movement to jettison the outdated notion of the golden years and replace it with a “new crown of life” typified by personally meaningful as well as socially and environmentally beneficial work.


Two decades ago, Americans ideally reached retirement age by 65 or 70 with sufficient savings to underwrite at least 15 years of recreation, travel and free time. Popular magazines were buzzing about best places to retire. Early retirees were buying second homes in places where they would one day move permanently. Now, even though the recession may appear to be the rationale for baby boomers to continue working, Freedman believes that living longer is actually the paramount reason, and more importantly, a huge opportunity for our country.


Freedman is a devoted advocate of “encore careers,” defined as post-midlife work for people over 55 who seek “purpose, passion and a paycheck.” In The Big Shift, he takes the “leisure industry” to task for marketing golf and retirement communities as though either could offer personal fulfillment. He debunks assumptions spouted by demographers, policy wonks, and the media that portray boomers as a gray wave that is selfishly robbing younger generations of precious resources. Admittedly, he has persuaded me. For the past decade I have been a proud and active participant in the rapidly growing encore movement.


As a career coach, I read The Big Shift to evaluate whether it might be a motivational book for clients over 50 or a valuable guide for career professionals advising those entering this new stage. It is both, each in its own way.


For those pursuing an encore career, Freedman hails their aspirations while he is candid about the bumps in the road toward their destination. Astoundingly, 10 million boomers have already moved into careers in “education, the environment, health, and social services, while fully half of those who haven’t already made the move say that it’s a top priority for their next phase.” Having said that, the process of recareering can be difficult, if not impossible. Freedman uses compelling profiles of people who have succeeded in encore careers, but he is frank that for many the shift is “too daunting, too hard to finance, and too difficult.”


For both encore-seekers and those who give them professional advice, the biggest take-away from The Big Shift is that we need to change societal attitudes toward retirement if we are going to make encore careers feasible. Freedman draws parallels to changes in the 20th century when adolescence was first identified as a discrete period of time after childhood and before adulthood. Now, we are on the cusp of acknowledging a stage that begins after midlife and ends before old age. Both young and old, he points out, benefit from “advice and counseling, higher education, and experiential opportunities like internships and service.” Through his leadership at Civic Ventures (online at encore.org) and previously at Experience Corps, he has implemented concrete programs to help boomers make the transition to the next chapter.


In large measure, The Big Shift is a call to action, and Freedman includes an ambitious 10-point plan for making encore careers commonplace rather than remarkable. He includes innovative proposals (his own and those of others) to create a variety of financial, educational, and social incentives for people over 55, and those eligible for Social Security, to pursue encore careers. Also, he is emphatic that entrepreneurship does not belong solely to the young and, in fact, boomers are at the forefront of business start-ups. Nevertheless, the reality is that career change after 55 or 60, as at any age, is not formulaic.


The insights and innovative ideas Freedman puts forward are most compelling when we realize how little thought, if any, anyone has given to the years after midlife. For too long, we have made retirement an end-goal and failed to think about what comes next. One of his most intriguing recommendations, in my opinion, is to establish a “gap year for grown-ups.” The gap year is widely accepted as “an important rite of passage for youth on their journey to adulthood” as well as “a time for renewal.” The idea of carving out time for moving into a third act makes perfect sense.


One theme from The Big Shift that deserves more attention, especially from the perspective of a career counselor, is how remaking retirement will likely change attitudes about work in younger generations. While Freedman makes the case that a new stage of life is a “project for all ages” because of the long-term benefits to society, he does not explain how younger people will be engaged as stakeholders in the process or how they may redefine their earlier career choices.


On reflection The Big Shift might have been titled, the tectonic shift. In the past, the “default legacy,” as Freedman calls it, was usually passive. It might have been an estate gift to charity or a memoir. Now, given the reality of living longer, Freedman encourages us to take advantage of “the opportunity to live a legacy--not just leave one.”


Marc Freedman will be the Keynote Speaker at the 2015 NCDA Global Career Development Conference!


Wendy Bay LewisWendy Bay Lewis is a career coach and consultant in Bozeman, Montana, where she has lived for 25 years and co-founded Bozeman Career Center—Careers for the Future in the Last Best Place.  She currently serves on the Bozeman Economic Development Council.  For eight years, she served as Development Director of Bozeman Public Library Foundation and completed a $7 million capital campaign to build the first LEED-certified public library in Montana.  For 10 years prior to that, she was Executive Director of the Montana Center for International Visitors. In her first career, she was an attorney in Arizona and consulted nationally on law-related education. She is a Certified Practitioner, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®. Wendy can be reached at WendyBayLewis@gmail.com.

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Joanne McLachlan   on Saturday 09/03/2011 at 01:27 PM

Exactly. I will purchase this book. At 63, I have joined my husband on a small acreage in the country. I had to leave my work in the city and am now looking for more. I won't go into trying to find work from a farm, but I love the idea of a "gap" year. Some of this time, for me, will be to catch up with the technical world - so I bought an I-phone and have learned about aps and have started a private blog. Not very good at it yet, but I'm learning.

We're way too young to not learn these things and participate in the now world. I need to do something to carry me through to my nineties and it sure as hell isn't golf.

I will be purchasing this book. Thanks for your review.

Tricia Bowler   on Monday 09/19/2011 at 04:47 PM

I was interested to read of what Freedman attributes the shift for boomers to continue working. I concur that living longer lives, with increased health (and less of us with retirement packages) has created a "gradual retirement" option for millions.

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