Bob has been working as a volunteer at TACSI for over twelve months on various projects in the Innovation Age. As a recently retired Baby Boomer, Bob shares his personal reflections on social connectedness
and Baby Boomers.

As a recent retiree, I have moved through the initial period of activity surrounding retirement – some international travel; some minor renovation work around our ‘home for life’ and ensuring long term financial security as well as ‘tweaking’ a new household budget that ensures we live and plan for our long and exciting future. Most importantly, I have confirmed and discovered some new “passions for learning” that I am now free to fully explore.  I have even settled on some regular weekly volunteer commitments which now help anchor me into my local community; allow me to build new friendships; and sustain my personal commitment to the ‘pay it forward’ movement.

At a part of the TACSI family, I have discovered an innovative organisation that nourishes talent and enthusiasm.  Coming from a commercial enterprise environment and education, I have enjoyed watching and learning how a not-for-profit organisation like TACSI chooses to manage its workforce. Living in a ‘Pod’ that is dominated by a ‘post-it note’ culture of shared learning and insights continues to bemuse and fascinate me.  Unravelling the applied research processes of the business is both personally challenging and mind stretching.

My current team of four is made up of individuals with a wonderful mix of talent, life experience and enthusiasm.  Our reflective insights on our research topic tended to come in ‘fits and starts’.  Sometimes we’d struggle to make coherent sense of what we have researched, observed and heard from a diverse set of volunteers who have kindly given of their time to share their stories and life experiences.  We document, we summarise and we continuously debate. No one could wish more from a ‘volunteer gig’.

So, as our team entered the ‘prototyping phase’ of our research on social connectedness and Baby Boomers, I listed down some personal reflections on what I found most enlightening from the literature search and local data gathering components of the project so far.
I undertook this task fully recognising that my views and personal biases will be on display.  I know I come from privilege  – education, financial security and social and family stability – but I hope my chosen observations do offer some small insights into what is a very fascinating stage of our life journey.

The Third Age – The Extended Timeline

Early in our topic’s literature search, we came across some statistical facts that really floored me.  I and my Baby Boomer friends had entered our post employment phase of life without really appreciating that this phase of life has been significantly extended. In simple terms, we can all now expect to ‘thrive, live, or exist’ for several decades in the post full-time employment period of life.

Statistics show that Australian Baby Boomers are generally healthier than all previous generations who have reached this milestone.  Of course, some of us may have ongoing health issues but medical interventions are certainly making a fully ‘active’ life more sustainable over a longer time period.

I guess I was partially aware of this situation when I met with my financial adviser to discuss income streams going forward in retirement but, for some reason, I had only viewed this information through the lens of family money resources.  I had not considered the number of ‘years of active life ahead’ that I needed to plan for and, more importantly, enjoy.

Another interesting and associated observation made by researchers was that Baby Boomers are generally more educated than previous generations who have entered this phase of life.  More individuals have completed post-secondary study; more availed of opportunities for workplace training and development when offered; and more have adopted personal technology that allows for individual lifelong study opportunities than with previous cohorts.

Of course there are many individuals who do not fit this profile.  We are constantly reminded that the Baby Boomer cohort is very diverse.  However, these two elements together do shine a different light on how individuals need to personally plan for this period of their lives as well as set significant community and societal challenges to better meet revised expectations.

Let’s expunge the term ‘retirement’

As we have progressed through our the first stages of our social research activity, it has become patently clear to me that the term ‘retirement’ is now completely inappropriate to describe this significant phase of our life journeys.

Retirement from what – we may ask? From paid work? From life?  The connotations ring loud. Ernest Hemingway is quoted as saying “…Retirement is the ugliest word in the language…”

Over and over, we heard from older people the shock they experience as they come to terms with their new invisibility; their social marginalisation; and their perceived sense of loss of value – as retirees.  Because ‘economic capacity’ has been so highly valued in our western societies for so long in our life journeys, redefining individual personas outside this matrix is difficult to achieve in the short term.

But major structural changes in our economy are underway.  Technology is redefining part and full time employment as well as workplaces and the very business enterprises themselves.

It is clear that many opportunities could continue to arise in the future for post-retirement Baby Boomers seeking to access regular part-time or ‘gig’ employment opportunities in the future to help augment their overall financial capacity overtime.  Unfortunately, governments and some businesses have yet to fully embrace this emerging paradigm shift which could see their potential workforces redefined to include older workers.

Ageism needs to be actively combated from both sides.  Seniors need to continue to develop their ‘positivity’ so they remain attractive recruits to modern workplaces and volunteer agencies. Younger generations need to be encouraged to embrace the older cohort in our community as we have been shown is possible in relation to other diverse social groups like disability and gender etc.

Finally, for Baby Boomers, we need to collectively begin to adopt a more positive terminology which truly reflects this signifiant period of the human life journey (e.g. The Third Age).  Describing a defined period of life that encompasses change, growth, opportunity, fun, freedom and liberty should be the objective.

Volunteerism needs to be completely re-engineered

As we have talked to many Boomers during our study, I have become very aware of the inadequates of the way volunteerism in our communities is defined and managed.  Unless there are serious efforts undertaken by peak organisations and the many agencies that look to host and deploy volunteers into activities within their business processes, then the rising cynicism of failed placements and antipathy towards volunteering will continue.

Baby Boomers are demanding change but few appear to be listening. A huge number of Baby Boomers want to actively contribute to their communities and to our society in general.  We seek volunteer placements that are made more flexible; more meaningful; and better integrated within the host organisations.  Through volunteerism, we want the opportunity to build social connections across the generations and we want inclusive and genuine recognition for the contributions made.

Again, as technology continues to impact on our understanding of what a business enterprise might look like into the future, we have an opportunity to fully appraise what the ‘working life’ (income generation) phase of the life journey may morph into. Innovative workplaces where full-time/part-time employees respectfully team with ‘gig workers’ and volunteers/interns appear to be the way of the future.

I firmly believe that interested and motivated Baby Boomers need to have an opportunity to be part of any such movement.

Baby Boomers are generally not well prepared and equipped to fully embrace this new phase in their lives

During the project so far, we have had an opportunity to talk to and reflect with a range of Baby Boomers and older persons on how they are travelling in this specific phase in their lives.  The responses have been diverse and multifaceted.

Some of the general observations that have resonated with me include:

  • The underlying ‘personality and outlook’ of the individual appears to influence the level of ‘positivity’ about their journey.  Well-grounded individuals with social connectedness capacity seem to be thriving.
  • As a generalisation, there appears not to be a high level of personal understanding and reflection of the strengths, weaknesses, likes/dislikes that may influence the way individuals choose to interact with their family, community and society, going forward.
  • Reports of periods of loneliness and social isolation are definitely factors in the life journeys of some of the interviewees.  Elements such as friendship maintenance and development; building resilience; understanding who is in their ‘tribe’; and the ability to self-audit to better understand current mindset and levels of positivity have all surfaced.
  • As the only male member of our research team, I have been particularly drawn to the specific observations of the Baby Boomer men cohort. Again , as a general observation, I can report that they appear to be more vulnerable and less prepared for finding a ‘personal pathway’ through this third age. Men with female partners were more likely to rely upon them to help with the management and maintenance of their social relationships. This has led me to wonder if the previous work and relationship experiences of Baby Boomer men who had been in steady long-term employment maybe less skilled in establishing new social relationships and friendships into the future.  Can I say that the ‘bromance phoneme’ for younger men appears not to have bridged to the over 50 cohort.

So there you have it – reflections, some obvious and some not so much.

It has been great to have the opportunity to be part of a project involving my own personal cohort and to learn from others how our individual journeys are progressing into this third age.

Since leaving full time employment and a job I really enjoyed, I too have suffered from ‘short pangs’ of loneliness and regret. I now know that I was not fully prepared for the retirement transition and I acknowledge how much my wife Judi played a part in nurturing and growing our social connectedness in the community in Adelaide.

My volunteer work across the community remains diverse and continues to connect me to new and interesting people and activities.

Finally, this TACSI project has also helped me to recognise behaviours in my friends and acquaintances that I didn’t fully appreciate beforehand. I hope I can be there in times when friendship and support are needed.

I leave you with this quote from Malcolm Forbes…

“…Retirement kills more people than hard work ever did…