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Using Elderly Volunteers To Create A Whole New Workforce

People retire at 65, but they’re living a whole lot longer than that. That’s a huge natural resource of knowledge and skills that we’re often wasting. How can we tap that resource?

Using Elderly Volunteers To Create A Whole New Workforce
ilker canikligil/Shutterstock

What’s the most important phenomenon of the last hundred years? It’s probably not the Bomb, the Pill or even the iPad. It’s longer life.

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This post is part of a series on the future of service in America, in conjunction with Catchafire.

There’s nothing new about old age. Some people have always lived to be very old. But never before have so many people lived so long–and so strong. After retirement, millions now look forward to 20 and more years of decent health, sustainable income, but face a resounding problem: What should we do now?

The traditional stages of life have been governed for centuries by traditional institutions. We are born into the institution of the family, soon submit to the rules of school, and then proceed into the even more rule-bound institution of work. Then, after 50 or so years–bang!–retirement. Then what? With the first baby boomers just now turning 65, that question resonates through their personal lives and through the national economy.

Older adults typically want to continue using their lifetime skills, for satisfaction and to give back. Only a minority of them are infirm or dependent. Most are–and are determined to be–independent. One scholar distinguishes the wellderly from the illderly. The vast numbers of wellderly want to apply their lifetime experience, to contribute.

This swelling tide of talent is creating an incomparable resource and yet older adults still find it hard, often impossible to contribute. Some politicians trash talk them as greedy geezers gobbling at the public trough. Some employers succumb to ageism, mindlessly stereotyping older adults as incompetent cranks. Others fear having to spend precious time and money to cosset older workers.

Society is only now, all too slowly, coming to understand the need for institutions that respond to this new stage of age. The most familiar are based on volunteerism: like the striking initiatives that Marc Freedman and Rachael Chong have described in earlier articles in this series of articles. Eight years ago, the incomparable social entrepreneur Herb Sturz and I started a somewhat different model, one that could be called paid volunteerism.

ReServe (pronounced re-serve) is a nonprofit agency that matches older adults’ skills with jobs at social service, cultural and public agencies that otherwise would not get done. The key is money. ReServists receive a stipend of $10 an hour for about 15 hours a week. That’s a long way from professional compensation but it constitutes a contract. ReServists don’t stay home because of the sniffles; employers don’t settle for licking envelopes.

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We have so far placed almost 3,000 ReServists in New York and are excited that affiliates have now sprung up in Miami, Baltimore and Newark, with others coming. One example of the work ReServists do: they are trained to help overburdened counselors in high-needs urban high schools to expand the number of students able to apply to college.
It will take time to discover which of these and other models will eventually evolve.

What’s already clear is the gratitude and satisfaction felt by the older adults now at work in one or another of these initiatives in voluntarism. Here, in words that reflect the experience of thousands, is how ReServist Willie Wirwaiss describes his service at the New York City Department of Health: “I’ve felt like my talents are being used. I’m appreciated. Here I am, approaching 70, and I love coming to work.”

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About the author

Jack Rosenthal, president emeritus of The New York Times Company Foundation, is chairman and co-founder of ReServe Elder Services.

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