Untapped value of Baby Boomers

When Tom Davis retired after 31 years as a top executive working overseas with Kimberley-Clark, he realized his experience could benefit struggling businesses in developing countries.  Tom is part of that vast network of Baby Boomers (those in the U.S. born between 1946 and 1964) who are now retiring and looking for ways to share their years of hard earned knowhow.

Tom didn’t want to stagnate when he retired, so he volunteered for the International Executive Service Corps (IESC) and we sent him to help a struggling but promising business in Lebanon.  “It was lacking so much in modern management capabilities, organization, strategies, and just getting projects done.  I was perfect for what I saw they needed,” he explained to me.

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Tom is one example of how to utilize a virtually untapped national resource of highly educated, experienced men and women who have ended their professional careers but remain in good health.  In fact, a vast majority of 50 to 75 year-olds look upon retirement as a time to stay active and begin a new chapter in their lives.  These are talented individuals, with experience that goes beyond what you get from a formal education, who want to find meaningful work after reaching retirement age in order to keep healthy and to contribute something important.

An aging population is an issue that is regularly discussed, but rarely as a problem of true magnitude.  There are 76 million Baby Boomers in the United States, accounting for 26 percent of the population.  If American institutions and society do not find ways of coping with so many retirees, the drain on our economy and social fabric will be huge. 

IESC obviously does not have the complete answer.  But for nearly 50 years, we have been setting a small example of what can be done by sending volunteers to developing countries whose entrepreneurs and businesses need American managerial and technical expertise.

It amazes me that such talent is overlooked.  Our volunteers not only enhance the communities in which they work by increasing jobs and living standards, but they also generate friendly trading partners for the U.S.

Another example of such talent is Hal Handley, an IESC volunteer who - after a distinguished career with Kraft - volunteered for IESC in Egypt, Lebanon, Ethiopia, Morocco and Sri Lanka.

Hal, who also volunteers one day a week at our Washington headquarters, is especially proud of his work in Morocco, where he helped local exporters meet stringent US requirements on imported foods.  “There’s a feeling that you can make a difference,” he told me.

Highly skilled and experienced professionals like Tom Davis and Hal Handley are part of a generation eager to volunteer their talents and wisdom.  As a nation we are just beginning to appreciate and value the important contributions these exceptional people make.  Hal sums it up best: “There are so many people like me with incredibly valuable experience that’s wasted if they spend their time just retired.  We solve problems, we figure out how to make things happen.  I saw a need and jumped in and resolved the issue.”

The retirement baby boomer bulge is an issue that will have growing ramifications throughout our economy.  It is imperative that resolutions are found at the highest levels of the White House and on Capitol Hill.  Congress needs, for example, to legislate significant tax incentives for corporations and businesses that will stimulate creative ways to exploit that talent going to waste.  It is an investment that will strengthen the economy and social structure of the United States, and give us the opportunity to influence decisions in the area worldwide.

Miller is president and CEO of International Executive Service Corps, a non-profit that furnishes expertise to the developing world to train in best business practices.  He is also the chair of the Board of the International Commission on Missing Persons.  He was previously U.S. ambassador to Greece, U.S. ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and special coordinator for the Cyprus negotiations.

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