The Blog

Suit Up and Play Again

Bill Clinton, Bill Gates and Al Gore may all be remembered for the work they did after the end of their hugely successful midlife careers. And what about the rest of us?
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Bill Clinton announced his candidacy for president 20 years ago this month. At an anniversary reunion in Little Rock last weekend, Clinton challenged the crowd, full of people who had worked in his campaign and administration, with a call to action.

While he said we had certainly earned gold watches for what we'd already done, Clinton urged us to look forward.

"America has never been a retirement party," he said. It's time to "suit up and play again," to give future generations the world they deserve.

Perhaps retirement was on Clinton's mind because he turned 65 this past summer. In years past, 65 was time to leave worries behind and tee up a life of full-time golf, travel, and grandchildren.

But that's not for Bill Clinton -- or millions of other boomers who have experience and energy to burn, who see work as fulfilling, and who want to make a difference in the lives of others.

"Suit up and play again" could be our mantra, the centerpiece of a new, encore stage of life.

It certainly suits Bill Clinton. Since he left the presidency, he has fought climate change and childhood obesity, raised money to treat AIDS and malaria, promoted economic opportunity from Haiti to Malawi and Rwanda, and much more.

Since its launch in 2005, the Clinton Global Initiative has encouraged over 1,700 "commitments to action" valued at $57 billion. When implemented, these will improve the lives of more than 200 million people in over 170 countries.

Some believe he is on track to accomplish even more for the common good than what the two-term limit made it possible to do as president. Bill Clinton, Bill Gates and Al Gore may all be remembered for the work they did after the end of their hugely successful midlife careers.

And what about the rest of us?

Few have the resources and networks available to former presidents and titans of industry. The hurdles for us are especially high in this time of bleak job prospects and messages of generational conflict. Carry-over expectations from the past about retirement, and plain old ageism, cause skepticism about beginning a new stage of work after midlife.

And yet millions have already launched their own encore careers, combining purpose, passion and, for many, the paycheck they need.

People like Lynn Sprafka, who after 30 years as a nurse and then nursing home administrator started her encore career as a patient navigator -- launching a program in Ohio to bridge the communications gap between patients, families, and health care providers.

And John Armstrong, a former corporate executive whose encore career began in a fellowship at a local environmental organization, where he now works full time.

And Mattie Ruffin, who retired after 27 years working for government expecting to relax. After one year, she wanted to put her experience and skills to work, and a community college course helped her figure out her next steps. She is now helping adults at the college earn their G.E.D.

A growing movement is beginning to spread the encore idea and create programs and policies to enable those who want to suit up and play again find their way. If this encore movement succeeds, social contribution will become the expectation for what boomers and future generations do in the decades between midlife and old age. In doing so, we will create a renewable resource of human talent to solve urgent social problems in the 21st century, to give our kids and grandkids the world they deserve.

The parties, drinks, music, and nostalgia in Little Rock got all the headlines. But the message that should be broadcast widely is this: "Suit up and play again."