Gray Power To The Rescue!Jennifer Reingold
What Corporate America Must Do to Survivethe Graying of the Workforce
By Beverly Goldberg
Free Press -- 230pp -- $25.00
How Baby Boomers Will RevolutionizeRetirement and Transform America
By Marc Freedman
Public Affairs -- 292pp -- $25.00
The U.S. is experiencing unprecedented growth of its older population. Is this something to fret over or something to celebrate? Well, it depends who you ask. And in two recent books--Age Works: What Corporate America Must Do to Survive the Graying of the Workforce, by Beverly Goldberg, and Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America, by Marc Freedman--you get different perspectives.
Each book takes as its starting point the fact that America is aging rapidly. Each arrives at essentially the same conclusion--that folks in their third age can and should be utilized to combat societal and business problems. Yet the journeys the authors take to get to this deduction are entirely different, with the often gloomy Goldberg sticking strictly to the facts, for better or worse, while Freedman spins a sunny, inspirational account. Both books tell only part of the story--and each, in the end, could have used a bit of the other's approach.
The facts themselves are compelling. In the first few pages of her book, Goldberg juxtaposes the already critical shortage of skilled workers against the backdrop of some 76 million baby boomers who will begin to retire in the next 10 to 20 years. If corporations don't reverse years of discrimination against and disinterest in older people and find a way to keep them in the workforce, she says, the U.S. faces nothing less than "an economic catastrophe."
Goldberg, vice-president at The Century Foundation, a think tank, denies believing that demographics are destiny--but she sure cares about them. Her first few chapters are chock-full of statistics and history about the aging of the population over the decades, the slow transformation from manufacturing to a knowledge-based economy, and the defining cultural and social events since World War II. Then she discusses the corporate reengineering movement, with its massive layoffs and benefits cuts, and the collapse of corporate loyalty. These she partly blames for the increasing trend toward early retirement--the average retirement age dropped from 67 in 1950 to 62.7 in 1995. Although little of this information is new and the presentation is fairly dry, the sheer amount of data helps persuade the reader that those over 60 are a critically underutilized resource.
Yet Goldberg lingers far too long over her description of historical developments. By the time she gets to the moral of her tale--what companies can do to reverse the bitterness and alienation they've wrought--the reader has begun to lose interest. That's a shame, because it is here that the freshest material shines through. She argues persuasively that companies must come up with flexible work environments in which elderly people can serve as consultants or mentors, illustrating these situations with a few of the rare corporate examples out there. Texas Refinery Corp., for example, hires retirees as independent contractors--letting them choose their own hours--and says that experienced older salespeople are more likely to be self-starters.
Nothing less than a new social contract is needed, says Goldberg, one that will create a flexible work environment for all stages of an employee's life. Although she concludes on an optimistic note, predicting that things will change for the better, it feels a bit false, since most of Goldberg's energy has been focused on demonstrating just how much of a jam Corporate America is in.
Even Goldberg's most optimistic statement is darker than practically anything in Freedman's work. Rather than filling his pages with statistics, he takes the reader on visits to a foster-grandparents program in hospitals in Portland, Me., and with retiree volunteers in schools in Portland, Ore. There are scores of anecdotes, many of which Freedman collected while in the leadership of such nonprofits as Public/Private Ventures and the Experience Corps, an elite all-volunteer organization that uses older people as mentors for both teachers and students. His goal is to show that the elderly are willing and able to give back to their communities if they're given the opportunity.
Freedman recounts the experiences of people like Cherry Hendrix, a 70-year-old Oregon grandmother who created an after-school bowling program to keep kids off the streets, and Harold Allen, a former Philadelphia Water Dept. employee who found a new calling as a school volunteer in a troubled neighborhood. "This is about rejuvenation! It's all about rejuvenation!" Allen exclaims at one Experience Corps meeting, showing that such programs can benefit both clients and the older volunteers.
Freedman's book is clearly written and full of enthusiastic, likable characters. Yet whereas Goldberg spends much of her time discussing the barriers to finding a place for older workers in today's corporate environment, Freedman avoids the tough problems altogether, preferring to focus exclusively on such tiny pockets of hope as the Volunteers in Medicine clinic, a free Hilton Head (S.C.) facility staffed entirely by retired doctors, nurses, and other volunteers. Perhaps because of his background, Freedman is concerned almost entirely with government-funded organizations, not with the corporate world. But since only companies have both the critical skill shortages and the money to make use of the growing number of third-agers, he should have paid them more attention.
It is a good thing that the problems of an aging society are finally drawing some earnest attention. But it's too bad that neither of these serious, carefully researched books combines analysis, readability, and real-world savvy in the same package.