The Journey: Civic engagement can help boomers find their 2nd act

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

October 26, 2015

During a long career in the arts after graduating from Dartmouth College, Jim O’Connell worked in New York, Phoenix, Des Moines and, finally, Wausau, Wis., a county seat near the center of the Dairy State with a population of about 39,000 and several other small cities nearby.

So one might expect that when he transitioned away last year from directing a performing arts foundation, he might gravitate back to an urban center rich in cultural amenities.

Instead, at 65, he’s teaching a course on arts management at the nearby state university extension campus and enjoying the performing arts center he helped create.

"I come up for tenure at 70, and I’m going for it," the assistant professor said.

A survey of 3,638 adults earlier this year by Merrill Lynch and Age Wave found that most pre-retirees (60 percent) intend to stay in their current state or region in retirement.

Transitioning to a "second act" career later in life using contacts from a previous career could be part of what’s keeping some baby boomers in their current cities (along with proximity to family), but O’Connell sees a larger trend playing out as rural areas begin to link together to attract local investment in public projects.

He was recently part of a panel discussion on civic vitality and special business improvement districts around his state. The districts are typically formed by coalitions of businesses that want to share costs for revitalization programs, such as downtown lighting or green space projects.

What keeps O’Connell from moving back to an urban area is a sense that he can have a voice in shaping what’s around him, he said.

"I love medium-sized cities," he said. "In a medium-sized city no level of decision making is out of reach. If you need to see the mayor, you just call his assistant and set it up. If you need to see the head of the hospital foundation, you can do that."

When he was raising money for the performing arts center, community discussions centered around how to get more use out of the facility during the summer months, when the theater schedule slowed.

That led to building in a multi-use lobby that could be used for non-theater events, such as weddings, he said.

"Having multiple uses was a catalyst in the development of the project," he said. "Using facilities in nontraditional ways makes the whole space more vital."

To be sure, not all baby boomers are picking up the mantle of civic engagement that the demographers foresaw for this generation as it heads into retirement. Plenty of retirees are still decamping for warmer climates and golf courses. Or they’re moving back to cities to enjoy the same cultural vibe that’s compelling companies to get out of the suburbs and create urban hangouts for young tech workers.

But for O’Connell — and others like him — there may be something to this quest for community building in later life.

"Creating space isn’t enough," he said. "You have to continually populate spaces with activity and bring people together physically" to create the kind of vibrancy and mutual respect that gets all groups of people, not just retirees, excited about living in a particular place, he said.

"When we’re no longer coming together and our exchanges are mostly virtual, it leaves us with little in common," he said during the panel discussion. "If the only thing we have in common is our property tax bill, is it any wonder civility is in decline?"