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A Trio of Books:
The Changing Nature of Work

A Review by Barbara Kammerlohr

"The consummation of work lies not only in what we have done,
but who we have become while accomplishing the task."

— David Whyte, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity

The stage is set for a major shift in the workplace. While 78 million baby boomers near traditional retirement age, a mere 40 million GenXers wait to take their places. Prognosticators predict dire consequences for the economy as too few workers contribute to Social Security, Medicare, and other social programs.

Is this a looming crisis or an opportunity in disguise? Researchers are just beginning to understand the needs and reservoir of skills the generation that is the beneficiary of 20 to 30 extra years of life brings with it, along with — for most — good health and energy. Even as this research goes on, the landscape is changing in critical ways. Benefit retirement packages are mostly a thing of the past, and few boomers have saved enough to support themselves through those extra years. New also is the fact that Boomers want to work. They need it as much for psychological health as for financial support. Even neurological research on brain health points to staying active and solving problems as a hedge against senility. Doing crossword puzzles is not exactly what these researchers have in mind!

In this issue, we review three books that focus on the changing nature of work.

Marc Freedman, the author of Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life (Public Affairs, 2007), is recognized as one of the most visionary and incisive observers of the American social landscape. In Encore, Friedman focuses on the growing social movement that is displacing retirement as the central institution in the second half of life. Growing numbers of boomers are finding “encore careers” — careers that contribute to the well-being of others and draw on the true gifts and experience of the individual — at an age when previous generations would have retired.

Freedman identifies the convergence of three social trends as responsible for this new relationship with work and sees it as an opportunity to change the world of work into a more meaningful institution:

The working lives of Americans have been extended by longevity and other advantages not available to our grandparents.
By 2030, more than one in four Americans will be over 60, creating the potential of too few workers to sustain our society and its economy.
Few boomers have access to defined benefit plans and have saved enough to support a traditional retirement. They need to work, both for the meaning it gives their lives and the money it will provide.

Find information about Marc Freedman


Taken together, these three trends could signal the largest transformation of America’s workforce in over half a century.

Information for Encore came from interviews with hundreds of people in their fifties and sixties. All are true stories of life entrepreneurs who changed careers for work that is personally meaningful and self-satisfying. These were people who created “encore careers,” and their experiences show the rest of us the possibilities for changing work and our feelings about it.

Freedman recognizes that a gap still exists between having a job work and finding work that is significant and deeply satisfying. His history of “retirement” and critique of the American workplace notes changes that must occur in order to persuade boomers that work can be a satisfying and meaningful part of their lives. He reports that these changes are already happening in industries feeling the effects of too few workers to complete the job.

One section of the appendix contains a step-by-step guide and resources for identifying your own encore career. While the steps seem simple, many of them are quite difficult because they require serious soul searching and thinking about what you like to do and what is truly meaningful in your life.

Encore is one of the significant books of our generation, a “must read” for anyone interested in the institutional changes that accompany the approaching age wave.

In Claiming Your Place At the Fire: Living the Second Half of Your Life on Purpose (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2004), authors Richard Leider and David Shapiro use the campfire as a metaphor about how to restore respect and dignity to elders in our society. The idea came to Leider in Tanzania as he sat around a blazing campfire with members of the Hadza tribe, a group of hunters and gatherers who still live as the Earth’s first tribal societies had for thousands of years. He noticed that the elders of the tribe sat closer to the fire; younger members formed a circle around them, according them respect and listening to the wisdom of their stories. The experience brought into sharp relief the contrast between the respect accorded those elders and that accorded elders in our society.

His conclusions about this sad state of affairs can be instructive for those who would change the experience of aging in “modern” society:

“It is not just that they [tribal elders] are acknowledged by their people; that is a given. As importantly they claim themselves as vital resources for their communities… A person closest to the flame has to have something valuable to bring forth and must take the initiative to do so. In this way he or she claims that place of respect at the fire…”

This practical guide for how to claim one’s place at the fire makes the assumption that we will succeed by

“…recognizing what we have to offer our communities and figuring out the best way to share it. In doing so, we make ourselves a resource for success in our communities and thus, carve out the place in which we belong.”

Susan Crandell’s research into the growing trend among boomers to reinvent their lives is a guide for all of us who strive to re-define our own lives at any age. Thinking About Tomorrow: Reinventing Yourself at Midlife (Waner-Wellness, 2007) profiles 45 boomers who left traditional jobs and made time to seek their authentic selves. These people show us the power of service to others and how to re-define family and find support for change in a nontraditional family.

Crandell’s profiles were all about people between ages 41 and 59. Initially, this was disappointing. She had written a book about specific activities that lead to healthy, successful aging, but confined her research to people under 60. I soon realized, however, that this was not an impediment to profiting from the book. In this new age of longevity, “mid-life” has no specific numerical definition. In her profiles, the reader finds a blueprint for what we must do to reinvent our lives. That blueprint calls for careful attention to the things that give life meaning; the older we become, the more important that careful attention becomes. Age is not the issue.

For those interested in making more modest changes than those in the profiles, the book includes “50 ways to jumpstart your life—little reinventions with big payoffs.” These suggestions are scattered throughout the book and include such advice as:


Visit Susan Crandell's website at

Walk 10,000 steps a day.
Mentor a teen.
Organize a Scrabble tournament.
Write a business plan.
Write a novel about yourself.
Take a flying lesson.
Learn to meditate.
Throw a reinvention party.
Spend the day at the library.

Susan Crandell left the top editorial job at More, a magazine for women in their forties and fifties, to launch a new career and explore new areas of life. Thinking About Tomorrow evolved from her resolve to understand the social revolution of which she was a part, “a quiet revolution, an underground movement…in which men and women in midlife were writing new scripts for themselves and boldly launching new lives.” It is an easy read — a book with stories about courageous people that will inspire you to look at your own life.