Born Before 1980? Why We Need You as a Social Innovator, Too

Lots of smart young people are attracted to the field of social innovation and that’s a good thing. But are systemic problems in need of the life skills older adults bring? The ability to solve problems just might benefit from those who have faced the complexities of life, work, and family. Does wisdom have a role along side youth?
Wisdom accrues in the messy process of working through the conflicting issues life throws at you. At work, wisdom grows with resourceful solutions in spite of little money or time. Nothing is more instructive in wisdom building than the long partnership of marriage and the absolute humility of raising children. Sounds like social innovation, right?
Today, I am surrounded by amazing young people who want to change the world. I want to change it with them. They are the 2012 cohort at the Design for Social Innovation masters program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. I admit there are days when I feel out of place, given that I’m a good 15 years older than anyone in the program. But mostly I just feel lucky. To be in school, at my age on a road I couldn’t have imagined a few years ago.
I was the studio director of a design firm in Washington, D.C. and I loved my work. We had recently launched a campaign encouraging seniors to fit more physical activity and exercise into daily life, Go4Life for the National Institutes of Health. We’d published a guide for making wise decisions on what to eat as you age.
I led the design team of The Journal, AARP’s international publication that addresses health and financial security issues. I worked with great teams for dedicated clients. But increasingly I asked, "Can we do better?" Personally, I asked, "Is this enough?" Do I travel and hang out for the next 25-30 years? That didn’t feel right. I’m a long range planner by nature and the inability to see a clear path ahead was disorienting.
My Aha Moment \n
One day a web search landed me at the Design for Social Innovation program. When reading about DSI my first thought was: I need to hire a graduate from that program. Then I thought: Why can’t I do the program? It all clicked into place.
Today, I live in Brooklyn, NY. I spend my evenings in one-armed school chairs. I stay up until two in the morning. During the day, I study. In class my cohort and I explore new ways to design with and not for communities. We map systems and organizations—making the invisible visible. We design games for change. And we’re using the latest in behavioral science research to create new personal habits with a DesignThyself project.
I’m happy to be in sponge mode but the really big surprise is how incredibly free I feel. Richard Rohr, says it another way, "Whenever, by some wondrous 'coincidence,' our heart space, our mind space, and our body awareness are all simultaneously open and nonresistant. I like to call it presence."
Why Social Innovation Needs Me and My Kind\n
The way I see it, the long view allows older adults to focus on impact. We’re not climbing ladders—we’ve done that already. We know who we are, both our strengths and weaknesses. Life has thrown us a few curves and we know the value of staying positive. We have a career’s worth of experiences and expertise to leverage. We can afford to be both patient and persistent. Need further convincing? Look at the Purpose Prize from It recognizes social innovators over the age of 60 and it’s received thousands of nominations since 2006, uncovering a hidden reservoir of change makers.
I appeal to those in careers that once thrilled but no longer fulfill—consider a second act. The United States average lifespan is almost 78 and most of the extra time is in the second half of life. Share the wisdom you’ve accumulated and the skill sets you have. The world and its wicked problems needs you.
Oh, and if you were born after 1980 please consider forwarding this to your parents.
Image courtesy of Tanya Bhandari\n
via Michael Belanger / Flickr

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