By Marc Freedman
What one policy should Washington pass to benefit older Americans in 2015?
We should create a new Legacy Corps, a policy innovation supporting and mobilizing one million Americans in their 50s, 60s and 70s to dedicate a year of service to improving prospects for the next generation. The Corps would deploy their accumulated experience to improve early childhood education, help children read and assist high-school students graduate and make the transition either to school or work.
The potential benefits are myriad:
—There is tremendous evidence that the presence of caring adults can improve outcomes for young people all along the age spectrum, and that individuals who invest their wisdom in the next generation are three times as likely to be happy as those who fail to engage in this way;
—A year of service could help many individuals not only find renewal, but also develop skills that could inform their next chapter of contribution—to retool for encore careers at the intersection of purpose, passion, and a paycheck, particularly those working with young people.
—As society’s proportion of older persons grows, and we all become more dependent on the productivity of a relatively small group of young people, there is a natural self-interest for all of us in ensuring that these youth are well-educated, productive citizens.
—Engagement that sows this type of intergenerational interdependence could set the tone for cooperation across age groups so essential for the new demographic reality of a graying America.
The timing is propitious. This year marks the 50th anniversary of a remarkable but little-known effort called the Foster Grandparent Program, a model that might serve as partial basis for a national Legacy Corps. Foster Grandparents is a federally-funded initiative matching older women and men, of modest means, one-on-one with children growing up in poverty or facing other challenging situations. The “grandparents,” all over 55, receive a small stipend in return for serving from 15 to 40 hours a week mentoring and tutoring children, providing basic health services, and performing other fundamental tasks drawing on their hard-won life skills. The effort’s informal motto captures the cycle of benefits to old and young alike: “every dollar spent twice.” Now that’s an adage for our fiscally-challenged times, where simultaneously solving problems and doing them in the most cost-effective ways is especially prized.
Marc Freedman is CEO and founder of Encore.org, a nonprofit organization working to promote encore careers—second acts for the greater good.