Activism by the Elderly

As a group, we over 65ers have substantial non-working time. According to the US Census Bureau, in 2011 16.2% of us participated in the labor force. The participation rate falls off steeply with age. Among 65 – 69 year old men (2010 data), 35.8% were working. For 70 – 74 year olds 20.9% were employed, falling to 8.6% for those over 75. For women, the comparable rates are 26.4%, 13.5% and 3.9%.

What will we do with all that non-working time? The answer to that question has a strong potential bearing on the quality of civil society.

A recent article in the Boston Globe illustrates the impact an Over 65 blogger is having by using his non-working time for activism. In the first of his two posts on long term care insurance (LTCI), Ken Deitch described how experiencing a massive premium increase on his own LTCI policy led him to look into how the industry is regulated and then to activism in his home state of Massachusetts.  In the second of his two posts he took the state to task for not meeting the commitments it made in the new “Act Establishing Standards for Long-Term Care Insurance” law to take steps to rein in the out of control premium increases. Ken brought that post to the attention of a Boston Globe reporter, whose front page story was headlined “State Protections Still Awaited for Long-Term Care: Rules on Insurers Delayed.” Ken was quoted in the article. Not surprisingly, the story appears to have jostled the state into moving the regulatory process forward.

This has been a very time consuming process for Ken. It’s not impossible that someone with a full time job could have done the same thing, but it’s not likely. If enough over 65ers do this kind of work on behalf of their vision of a more fair and just society, we can make a meaningful contribution to the quality of our national life.

Volunteer service work has a hallowed history among the elderly. In 1966 RSVP (“Retired and Senior Volunteer Program”) was launched in New York City. Today RSVP is part of a federal agency – the Corporation for National & Community Service – that fosters volunteer activities for more than 300,000 older Americans. Ken Deitch’s activism is a form of volunteer work – not with an organization, but on behalf of an issue he felt passionately about.

Marc Freedman, CEO of Encore, an organization devoted to encouraging “encore careers” in the period from 55 – 80, has taken the traditional idea of volunteerism and connected it to the world of work. Freedman’s vision is that after 30+ years of work from young adulthood to mid-life, some people may want to look for new and remunerated ways to apply their experience, knowledge and skills to contribute to social well being and enhance their own sense of purpose and meaning. Encore sponsors an annual “Purpose Prize” contest with $100,000 in award money for people over 60 who have made extraordinary contributions as social entrepreneurs.

Whether it’s unpaid volunteer work, which is more common among folks in their 70s and beyond, or remunerated “encore careers” for folks in their 50s and 60s, RSVP and Encore share the conviction that many elderly want to “give back” to society and to future generations. This conviction is a major premise of the Over 65 project!

“Giving back” to society needn’t pose an either/or choice between altruism and egotism. Ken Deitch was stung by a 70% increase in his LTCI premium. But his response stands a good chance of benefiting thousands of others, not just himself.

Jim Sabin, M.D., 74, is an organizer of Over 65, a clinical professor of population medicine and psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and a Fellow of the Hastings Center.

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