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New report looks at retiring Jewish baby boomers

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The Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University and the school’s Wagner Research Center for Leadership in Action have released a report that starts to look into the potential effects of baby boomers’ retirements on the Jewish community.

The report, put together by NYU professor David Elcott, is based on the responses of 12,000 Jewish baby boomers conducted by Jewish federations in 34 communities in an attempt to start outlining the baseline retirement plans of the Jewish boomers. 

What will happen with baby boomers is significant, according to the report, as three of four plan on retiring from their lifelong careers by the age of 64 — but then plan on moving into something of a second phase career.

While much attention has been placed on how the Jewish world will attract the next generation of involved Jews, the question of what the boomers will do actually may have a more significant impact on the policies of the organized Jewish community. Yet the Jewish world has focused on the elderly and aged, it has fretted about the young, but to date it has largely ignored the boomers — the fastest-growing Jewish demographic among the non-assimilated and non-Orthodox.

“The project is grounded in the hypothesis that baby boomers, as they age over the next decade, will re-conceive a stage of life from about 60-80 years old, and as they do, force shifts in communal institutions currently ill-suited to this re-conceived vision,” says the report’s executive summary.

The general community is working off the premise that the baby boomer generation is particularly civic-minded and is wondering how to engage with them as the boomers look for later-in-life careers. The report raises questions about what will happen as Jewish boomers move into second careers and volunteering in Jewish organizations, which could cause much institutional tension. 

The report compares national survey averages about the baby boomer generation’s attitude toward pursuing that second career in public service or volunteerism to the attitudes of Jewish boomers.

There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of serious variation. That said, the Jewish boomers seem to be set up to have a little bit more financial flexibility and thus a bit more time on their hands to volunteer in their senior years. Some 61 percent of Jewish boomers surveyed reported annual household incomes of more than $100,000, compared to 21 percent of the general population. 

Here’s the rub: Remember those 1980s “I learned it by watching you” anti-drug commercials? Is it possible that the next gen learned its anti-Jewish establishment attitude from the baby boomers?

Some 86 percent of boomers said they might be interested in volunteering for a Jewish organization. Only 37 percent said they would prefer to work for the Jewish community, while 60 percent said Jewish or non-Jewish was fine.

But, the report notes, “A Cincinnati study of Baby Boomers confirmed the themes that concern Jewish communal leaders: While Jewish experience permeates their lives and there is great interest in seeking life’s meaning, they are not motivated to engage in traditional communal structures (Ukeles & Miller, 2008).”

In addition:

While about a third of Jewish respondents were interested in working in such areas as Jewish education, synagogue work, Jewish agencies that care for Jews, political advocacy and social action, the greatest interest was in Jewish agencies or organizations that serve the wider community. Even with affiliated Jews, particularistic Jewish-focused goals showed limited appeal. We have now filtered possible responses to reveal the conflict facing Baby Boomer Jews and the dilemmas facing the Jewish community as a minority group seeking to provide opportunities for Jews to participate in the community. The Baby Boomer Jews of this study hold two values that are not integrated: to live out their public service by serving or working through the Jewish community, and to seek life’s meaning and purpose wherever it leads them, including outside the Jewish community.

On the other hand, nearly 40 percent of Jewish boomers said they would turn to a Jewish organization for help if they needed it, compared to 16 percent who would turn to the government. That leads to the question of whether the Jewish world is prepared.

The report included focus groups with Jewish organizations that asked them a series of questions about how equipped are their organizations to deal with the boomers’ retirement; some real problems could be in the offing.

Enthusiasm for change was matched by anxiety about two crucial arenas: what impact would bringing in Baby Boomers as professionals or volunteers have on existing personnel and human resources systems, and would flexibility and job meaning undermine the professional character of the institution?

In noting the absence of settings in the Jewish community to address the impact of Baby Boomers and the failure even of the few initial forays into exploring potential volunteer or professional options, one could easily conclude that “psychic dislocation” leads to decision-making paralysis — committee meetings, task forces and conferences that do not galvanize the leadership, foster no change and therefore produce no new initiatives. It will be hard for the Jewish community to address the future of Baby Boomers in the face of such inertia.

Read the whole report at NYU Wagner’s website.

For now, here are the major findings:

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  1. Wealthier and more educated Baby Boomers are not likely to seek retirement in the traditional sense at 65. In fact, nearly 80 percent are prepared to consider a later-in-life career in some form of public service.
  2. Jews are potentially less likely than other educated and wealthy Americans to seek out a later-in-life career in public service.
  3. Jewish Baby Boomers are concerned about earning income (although not simply for economic security), as well as staying active and involved as they grow older.
  4. The two most emphatically perceived needs for those interested in a later-in-life career are (a) flexible time and (b) staying active, productive, challenged and intellectually engaged.
  5. Jewish professionals expressed great concerns that the demands Baby Boomers (both volunteers and those seeking paid positions) will place on Jewish institutions are more than these institutions can handle. Jewish institutions are not prepared or preparing for an influx of Baby Boomers as volunteers or later-in-life career professionals.
  6. Jewish Baby Boomers would prefer being helped by Jewish communal agencies in finding meaningful later-in-life activities and would also prefer to serve the wider American society through Jewish institutions, but they are also prepared to utilize non-Jewish resources if the services and opportunities they seek are not available in the Jewish community.
  7. The majority of Jewish Baby Boomers do not at this time see either volunteer or paid later-in-life careers as a way to express their Jewish identity.
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