Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Encore Careers May Provide Excellent Opportunities for Branch Campuses

I think it is time to change directions. In the disruptive environment that I believe higher education faces, an important question goes to how we can best position our institutions for success. The good news is that there are relatively new ways of thinking about organizations and organizational change that may be entirely consistent with the impact of technology, a higher proportion of adult learners, and concerns about the cost of traditional education.

These new ways of thinking emerge from positive psychology, an approach that focuses on individual and organizational strengths, rather than deficits, with the goal of thriving or flourishing, not simply surviving or enduring. There are a number of topics I can explore here, but I want to start with something that is close to my own heart: The implication of the Baby Boomer Generation, as it moves past 60 and toward what we think of as "traditional" retirement age. Some of what I will share can be explored in greater detail in an excellent book, by Marc Freedman (2007), called Encore: Finding Work that Matters in the Second Half of Life.

A key point is that the idea of "retiring to leisure" is a relatively new notion, tied to the creation of Social Security and corporate pensions. Before, say, the 1930's, most people simply worked until they died, and they tended to die at a younger age than most of us, today. Bluntly, many Boomers can't afford to retire, and many of us who can, don't want to. It is important for us to feel productive, although how we want to approach work may change.

I won't go into more detail on the attitudes and needs of Boomers, when it comes to work, but I do want to share some potentially good news: Employers need us to stay engaged. The immediately following generation is too small to adequately fill employment needs, and the generation after that, although large, is not yet experienced enough for some roles.

Boomers looking at so-called encore careers may want to work in roles similar to the ones they've filled in the past, or they may want to change directions. Almost certainly, they will put a premium on flexibility, working part-time, seasonally, as consultants or project specialists, etc. Consider, for example, a professor, who may not want to teach full-time or serve on deadening committees, but would love to teach part-time and, perhaps, do some writing.

Boomers bring experience, wisdom (one hopes), and love to tell their stories. It turns out that the generation just entering the workplace, often called Generation Y or Millenials, enjoy hearing our stories, value flexibility, and share many of the social values of the Boomer generation. (Not really a huge surprise. Millenials are our kids!)

How might an appreication of generations impact an institution of higher education, and most especially, a branch campus that excels at serving adult learners or provides a wide range of certifications, online and blended courses, and highly competitive tuition?

First of all, there are "business" opportunities here. Many Boomers will seek education and training to develop skills or pursue long-delayed interests in learning. Because they value flexibility, they will be attracted to blended or hybrid programs that allow them to travel, be somewhere warm in the winter, or whatever suits their lifestyle. How we package courses and use technology for delivery will be important. (Note that the Millenials are digital natives and this is their natural environment, already.)

Although the personnel office might classify a retired professor, teaching part-time as an adjunct, it isn't quite what we usually think of as an adjunct. Their experience and approach to the classroom may be quite different, and we have found that many of these faculty members also embrace technology in their teaching, for the flexibility it provides. Retirees from other fields may enjoy teaching, as well. So staffing scalable types of courses that reach out to new audiences may be less difficult than a lot of people imagine.

Retired administrators and faculty members may be very interested in working on special projects or returning to work at especially busy times of the year, reducing cost to the institution, while retaining needed expertise. Mentoring programs with younger colleagues may pay huge dividends, as well.

My point here is that there is still a lot of juice in Baby Boomers. Most of us have far too many years yet to live to retire to leisure. Designing jobs or roles and providing appropriate educational preparation may be a wonderfully welcome opportunity.

There is one more point I'd like to make: I have found working with younger staff to be energizing and fun, for me. If we think of generational differences as another example of diversity, there is much for all of us to learn and to celebrate. There is a compatibility that suggests building cross-generational work teams may be a powerful way to engage faculty and staff, yielding a dynamic, enthusiastic, creative force that will powerfully affect an institution's competitiveness in a disruptive, rapidly changing environment.