From Strength to Strength: Capturing the Assets and Intentions of 21st Century Jewish Baby Boomers

by Roberta Leiner

The maturation of the baby boomer generation is transforming our society today. Baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, will start turning 65 next year; by 2030, they will be between 66 and 84 and will represent more than 20 percent of the United States population. This is a major demographic shift that is already affecting communities across the nation, and the Jewish community is no exception.

This reality demands a coordinated and well-planned response for those who are vitally aging, as well as for those whose lives might be affected by chronic illness and frailty. The aging of our communities affects all aspects of contemporary Jewish life as well as the essential roles that Jewish baby boomers can play in Jewish nonprofits. There are increased opportunities for volunteerism, community service, and “encore careers” (post–traditional retirement). Getting them involved is mutually beneficial for the Jewish community and these boomers. In a landscape now altered by the weight of recession, the aging demographics of the Jewish community demands that we continue to focus on boomer needs, concerns, and opportunities for leadership and meaningful volunteer and public service. Among the latest important evidence of this is a study recently published by David M. Elcott, Ph.D., of the Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, Baby Boomers, Public Service and Minority Communities: A Case Study of the Jewish Community in the United States.

For many years, UJA-Federation of New York has been charting a course to develop programs and engage participation from the boomer generation. In 2003, we understood this untapped potential and the need for communal repositioning, and we undertook a planning process to launch Life Options, guided by the work of Marc Freedman, founder of Civic Ventures. Life Options explored the various ways in which we can best prepare for the growth in our maturing Jewish adult population, and how they might engage in our agency and synagogue system at local levels. UJA-Federation of New York recognized that increased longevity; higher levels of health, education and vitality; and the assumption of continued personal growth would surely redefine expectations that Jewish baby boomers have for the “third age” of life.

As we set out to reimagine the canvas of boomer engagement, we looked to create an environment full of meaningful opportunities, where all Jews could age with dignity and continued personal growth. We funded two pilot programs to test new models that adopted a view of retirees as resources to be tapped, not problems to be solved. Three years later, in 2006, we launched an expanded endeavor, From Strength to Strength: Engaging Baby Boomers and Beyond, to continue to test program models that uphold the idea that Jewish boomers will boldly embrace this phase of their lives. Research shows that keeping someone as an active and committed community member delays the onset of disability. Therefore, developing programs that aim to empower and engage empty nesters, family caregivers, emerging retirees, and other mature adults serves as an important preventive health intervention.

Our vital-aging initiative recognized that despite our pride in what our communal institutions have done and continue to do, our existing infrastructure of synagogues, Jewish community centers, and human-service agencies is under prepared for the shift in needs of boomers. UJA-Federation of New York funded eight of our network agencies to:

  • Engage boomers in meaningful and sustained volunteer opportunities.
  • Support ventures into new careers or involvement in business or social entrepreneurship.
  • Nurture holistic life planning, mental and physical well-being, and spiritual and Jewish growth opportunities.
  • Integrate generations to work together on community issues.

Our mission was and still is not only to create programs that meaningfully engage older adults, but also to help achieve culture change by working with the Jewish community as a whole, and to re-envision mature adults as assets to be engaged.

To date, UJA-Federation of New York’s vital-aging initiative has served more than 4,000 individual clients and propelled several agencies to strengthen their ability to engage the older population in their communities. Programs have included volunteer and service learning, second-career and social entrepreneurship opportunities, holistic life planning, spiritual growth, intergenerational contact, cultural and recreational enrichment, and programs of health and wellness. We have harnessed the talent and energy of vital older adults to enrich their own lives, while enhancing our own community.

It is important to note that the roles of boomers as providers and family caregivers have been hurt by the recent economic recession and the financial losses it has caused for so many boomers. For some, dreams of retirement have been shattered.

Data from UJA-Federation’s Connect to Care initiative, which assists Jewish New Yorkers affected by the economy, demonstrates that boomers are among the hardest hit by the economic downturn. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and The New York Times also confirm that more people who are 55 and older are seeking work and delaying retirement, as well as experiencing a higher rate of poverty. The downturn has created new opportunities and needs for this population; Connect to Care services have been customized to respond to the unique interests and needs of boomers.

Despite this current financial reality, we are confident that UJA-Federation of New York’s vital-aging initiative has served to spark creative pathways into our service system, and ignited professional and lay leaders to rethink how the next wave of older adults wants to participate. For us and the rest of the Jewish community, engaging baby boomers as they age remains a key opportunity.

Roberta Leiner is managing director of UJA-Federation of New York’s Caring Commission.

For more on the study, and to download a copy, check our post from yesterday, The Challenges, and Opportunities, of an Aging Population.

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