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Ask What You Can Do For Your Country: A New Idea for Service in Retirement

The Peace Corps got our patriotic juices flowing. Then we had careers. Now we have time and can reignite our passion to serve. Here's a way to bring us together to make a meaningful contribution.

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We have a big idea, one that might help with a big problem—pandemic recovery. The idea is based on one we have advocated for years—an intergenerational service corps with a focus on education. In the time of COVID, such a corps would achieve equally valuable goals with a focus on recovery.

Here’s our thinking:

In 2019 there were 52 million people age 65 and older in the United States. Baby Boomers constitute over twenty per cent of the U.S. population, and we can be expected to live for at least another two decades. Ten thousand of us reach retirement age every day.

Many of us are ending long careers, yet want to stay connected to the wider world in a purposeful way. We have lots of skills, and have become experienced problem solvers. We are assets waiting, and willing, to be deployed. And we are inclined to public service. We came of age inspired by President Kennedy’s exhortation: Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country. He sparked our imaginations and our patriotism.

At the same time, close to four million teenagers are graduating from high school every year. Many like the idea of a gap year after graduation, and many would benefit from a maturing year of mandatory service. They would learn that citizenship involves not just rights, but also responsibilities, that service to our country is incredibly fulfilling, and that we older folks actually know a thing to two. 

The big idea? Bring these two groups together to serve the country.

We propose the creation of a federal domestic program–America’s Future Corps–to channel the expertise of our retirees and the energy of our children—together.  An intergenerational body that would call upon the extensive skills of our older citizens, together with the fresh ideas of our younger citizens, in service to our country, invoking our patriotism and our desire for purpose.

There is plenty for us to do. Especially now. We have all been sidelined by lockdowns of one sort or another, and a lot of young people have lost employment prospects. The pandemic, and the recently reinvigorated Black Lives Matter movement, have exposed urgent priorities—affordable housing, effective transportation, equity in healthcare, rethinking policing, to name a few. We know there are retirees who could bring expertise to all of these fields. And we think putting them to work, alongside younger people, would benefit everyone. Volunteer patriots participating side by side with government, could achieve great things.

We look to two sources of precedent—the Works Projects Administration and the Peace Corps.

  • The WPA was established by a Presidential Order in 1935, after a debilitating Great Depression. The WPA employed millions of people to build public infrastructure—parks, schools and roads, and the Tennessee Vally Authority dam. It was hugely successful—employing the unemployed and creating lasting value for the country.
  • The Peace Corps was established by Executive Order in 1961. The Peace Corps sent young people around the world to lend their skills toward development projects. It too became a major force—for those who participated, for those who benefitted, and for the country.

Meld the two together and add in retirees, and you get America’s Future Corps—a domestic initiative combining the skills of experienced workers and the energy of younger people to build public infrastructure once again—both physical, like housing and transportation, and virtual, like providing internet access to all.

The mechanics? Hard. We’ll leave those to the brilliant people, both older and younger, who are better at systems than we are, but here are a couple of ideas:

  • A federal database which would identify worthy projects and their needs, and match them with the service preferences of younger folks and the skills, experience and location of retirees.
  • Federal incentives would inspire engagement. The Corps would brand its members as part of a vibrant national community, deployed locally, fueled by patriotism.   

Everyone has something to contribute. Younger people have energy, vision, and creativity. Retirees, whether carpenters or lawyers, health care workers or electricians, gardeners or physical therapists, administrators or doctors, computer programmers or janitors, have skills and experience that can be put to good use. 

Everyone benefits. Retirees want to contribute, and they will live happier lives, and require fewer health services, if they stay connected. Younger people will learn both the skills required for specific jobs, and the skills required for life and civic virtue. And the country will flourish.

Are you in?

To read more, please visit the Lustre website.

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