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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

If 60 Is the New 18 . . . --Higher Education for the "New" Adult


In the May 15, 2011 issue of Newsweek, Susan Cheever wrote, “If 50 is the new 30, 60-ish is in many ways a new kind of 18.  We are coming of old age in a way that parallels our first coming of age.  As we head for 60 we know that statistically we are old.  But we don’t feel old, and we may even be more physically active than we were at 18 when we had never heard of Core Fusion or Bikram Yoga.”   She adds, “We joke about being carded when we ask for the senior rate. Our desire to obey the rules can fall away. Life is suddenly very short and very precious. We are coming to the end of this wonderful ride. Now is the time! If we are not going to speak out and act out at 60, when will we?”

Cheever was writing about the marital woes of Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger.  However, her comment raises a different question for those of us interested in the intersection of education and society:  How do our educational institutions prepare people to be productive citizens, professionals, and individuals when, for most, life will extend well beyond the traditional “three score and ten”?  

Just as our educational system itself was designed for an agricultural and industrial society, it also assumes that the goal is to prepare young people for a single career.   Now, a generation into the Information Revolution, as we adapt our institutions to the needs of this new society, we also need to figure out how best to prepare our citizenry for a live that has a much longer—and more active—third act, one that (as Jeremy Rifkin suggested in The End of Work) could allow mature adults who are past their parenting roles to engage in new ways with their community and the broader society. 

 Certainly, this could be one aspect of revitalizing the general education curriculum:  helping undergraduate students develop a sense of themselves as citizens of both a civil and a professional community.  And, certainly, this could be a sub-goal of a new societal expectation—a nonmilitary kind of Selective Service (perhaps integrating Vista, Peace Corps, and related services)—that young people would complete a year of public service before they enter the adult workforce—to prepare them, as they enter the workforce, to think about what role they might play in society after their working years are over. 

While those ideas may be dramatic enough—difficult enough to get our institutions and our state and federal governments to envision and implement—we should ask:  What else can we do to prepare adults for an active, service-oriented third act?  If Rifkin’s ideas come to pass, employers may well want to work with colleges/universities to prepare their mid-career staff for an effective transition to public service in order to make headroom for younger employees.   We may even want to envision a new kind of degree or certificate that helps adults prepare for the transition. 

It will take time for a very different view of higher education’s role in society to catch hold. It is worth thinking about now.  What do you think?