GRAND RAPIDS — People at or near retirement age are increasingly looking to create a next chapter in their lives that will give them opportunities to work and make meaningful contributions.
That has organizations such as the Grand Rapids Community Foundation and the Grand Rapids Chapter of SCORE — the Service Corps of Retired Executives — continuing their push for embracing the knowledge that workers over the age of 55 bring to the table.
“We had an opportunity to support the emergence of a culture in the community where we value experiences and the wisdom of adults and we see the value in their talent, leadership and experience,” said Kate Schmid, vice president of programs with the GRCF.
That opportunity presented itself with an alignment with Encore.org, a national nonprofit that is spearheading efforts to engage millions of people in later life as a vital source of talent to benefit society. Encore’s founder and CEO Mark Freedman said his organization’s ultimate goal is to create a better future for young people and future generations.
Schmid said the particular group Encore focuses on includes people who feel marginalized.
“Certainly, during the recession, it was nearly impossible for people over the age of 50 to re-enter the workforce,” she said.
The GRCF has a dedicated space on its website for information about Encore to share success stories from individuals in the Grand Rapids area who have benefited from the networking opportunities and other resources they have used.
“We’re providing opportunities for individuals to reflect on their personal journey and what they want to do with the next phase of their life,” Schmid said. “We also provide opportunities for people to socialize and network with one another around this vision.”
However, there are ongoing challenges such as internal and external ageism and the perception that an aging population becomes more of a drain and less of an asset.
“The existing narrative is that once you retire, you are no longer in that network and we start to see that group viewed as being a drain on the health care system and basic services,” Schmid said. “What we’re saying is that they are a tremendous resource and asset and represent a huge workforce that is ready to be leveraged toward social good.”
The more than 30 retired professionals who volunteer with the Grand Rapids SCORE chapter are examples of older adults who continue to make positive contributions. The nonprofit organization, whose sponsors include the U.S. Small Business Administration, has a dedicated space in the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce headquarters where they put their accumulated years of real-world experience and knowledge to work counseling clients looking to start a business or grow an existing business.
Rob Hughes, a certified SCORE counselor in Grand Rapids, said the organization’s clients range from millennials to retirees and everyone in between. He said he has heard young people question the ability of retirees to offer relevant expertise because of their age and said he considers SCORE as the “Service Corps of Real Experience,” not just retired guys.
“What I see is people respecting the fact that we are experienced. I don’t think age gets in the way,” Hughes said. “The depth of knowledge we bring to the table is unmatched. We’ve been there before.
“People in business can pay $300 an hour for a consultant, where we do it for free.”
Schmid said it’s all about writing a new narrative and tapping other resources for those who are nearing retirement age, but don’t want to completely walk away from the workforce or volunteer work in the community. She said such a forum shares pathways with experienced adults who want to continue to contribute.
According to a Startup Activity index compiled by the Kauffman Foundation, last year about 352 out of every 100,000 adults between the ages of 55 and 64 became entrepreneurs in any given month. That amounted to 13 fewer people than in the 45-54 age group, 53 fewer than those in the 35-44 category, and 164 more than the 25-34 age group.
M. Daniel Butler, who chairs the Grand Rapids SCORE chapter, said about 20 percent of its clients are over age 55.
“There are some people who have approached a certain stage of life and companies may have downsized them and they are seeking to start up something or maybe they’ve come to an end of one career and want to start another,” Butler said. “We engage with that individual and talk about what we see as necessary for them to be successful and they may need to adjust their expectations or their style. The focus is on that intended entrepreneur.”
Schmid said the results of the Kauffman Index and what she is seeing locally begs the question: “Who should we be focusing on?”
As another example, she said the average age of Uber drivers is a lot higher than most people think. She said these older drivers, like their peers, are looking for new ways to have a good quality of life and stability.
The reality is that the traditional retirement that saw retirees flocking to warmer climates such as in Arizona or Florida in pursuit of a more leisurely lifestyle is no longer the norm, Schmid said. The GRCF is working alongside them to provide access and the conduits to put their talents to use.
“People aren’t looking to step back,” Schmid said. “We’re investing in opportunities to inspire individuals and organizations to put in new models for the next phase of their lives.”
That investment has resulted in everything from mini-grants to six-figure grants to Encore fellows who wanted to take a deep dive into researching what is happening in organizations. In 2014, seven Encore Innovation Fellows highlighted organizations that were moving forward to achieve Encore’s visions and to see what residents’ experiences had been.
Schmid said this is how Encore built a growing social media presence that focuses heavily on the stories of area residents.
In September, the local Encore chapter presented a conference titled “We Are the Experts of Us” at the Prince Conference Center in Hudsonville.
“About 150 showed up. They weren’t there to be told anything, they were there to talk to their neighbor and people who have the same shared experiences,” Schmid said. “We’ve just provided that platform for people to connect and to offer these possibilities and an ecosystem for people to figure it out.”