Influencer in Aging Paul Kleyman: Inspiring Activism Among Boomers

Paul Kleyman Headshot

Paul Kleyman is co-founder and National Coordinator of the Journalists Network on Generations, and edits its e-newsletter, Generations Beat Online. He co-directs the Journalists in Aging Fellows Program with The Gerontological Society of America. His 1974 book Senior Power: Growing Old Rebelliously was among the first trade-press books on issues in aging. In 2016 he was named among the top “Influencers in Aging” by PBS’s Next Avenue website. In 2009 he received the Distinguished Service to Journalism Award from the Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California. His articles have appeared in the Huffington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Salon and many others.

In your work, you’ve been focused on the needs of aging Americans for many decades. What inspired your interest in this area?

Paul Kleyman: My maternal grandparents, Henry and Sophie Supak, continue to be the guiding social and political spirits in my life, not because they were old, but because of their dedication to social justice, which got me involved in the movements of the 1960s. In 1972, I was asked to write a social tract that became my book Senior Power, and I’ve aged with this dynamic, socially cross-cutting issue ever since.

It’s been almost 45 years since your book Senior Power: Growing Old Rebelliously hit shelves. How has the notion of “rebellious” aging changed in that time?

Paul Kleyman: The book was about progressive activism by and for older people who reach late life facing challenges of income and health insecurity. Those issues confront more and more seniors today, with about half of U.S. elders finding at least some difficulty making financial ends meet. One difference from the 1970s is greater potential for activism among the boomer generation. Although that can range from those in the Tea Party to Berniecrats, the possibility of progressive advocacy toward addressing rising inequality and injustice is very real.

What is the mission of the “Journalists Network on Generations”?

Paul Kleyman: JNG started in 1993 as a way for widely dispersed reporters interested in aging to remain in touch with each other, providing mutual support and offering a welcoming nest for others finding their way to this under-covered topic. Besides publishing Generations Beat Online News with information on important stories or opportunities for reporters, JNG aims to bridge journalists to experts in aging, such as through training fellowships and by organizing workshops on the subject at conference in both journalism and gerontology. Our essential goal is to foster more and more knowledgeable coverage of issues in aging.

The Respectful Exits Longevity Agenda calls on employers to make specific changes in policy and practice to support aging workers. What kind of impact do you think those changes could have?

Paul Kleyman: Respectful Exits’ efforts, especially to promote phased retirement, address a critical issue for stabilizing our aging population in this volatile economy for average workers. These changes will also help bolster U.S. productivity in the increasingly competitive global economy.

'Respectful Exits' efforts, especially to promote phased retirement, address a critical issue for stabilizing our aging population in this volatile economy for average workers.'Click To Tweet

Getting employers over their customary ill-founded skepticism about the cost and value of older workers will become more and more important as the American labor force shrinks due to the far smaller Generation X and also, to the ultimate detriment of our economy, to irrational anti-immigration policies.

Well-structured phased retirement programs can offer older workers the flexible schedules and working conditions they want and need to keep their experienced hands on the job, while also sharing the institutional knowledge with younger workers through formal or informal mentorships. Such arrangements are not mere accommodations to senior employees’ workplace fatigue and aching joints, but they can also help to usher in the kinds of flexible work environments being demanded by millennials, who want more balance in their live-work situations.

Enabling graying workers to ease out, though, is only one of the mechanisms needed to address the aging of America’s workforce. Legislatures and the courts need to reverse their quiet weakening of age discrimination laws in deference to corporate lobbying based on falsehoods contending that older workers reduce their bottom lines. Higher minimum wages with safe and stable work environments need to become the norm, not the exception, especially in fast-growing fields like home health care. Retirement security needs to be restored and enhanced through stronger, not weaker, pensions, through strengthened Social Security and Medicare for All, including a long-term care component mostly needed for older workers and their families.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that now-outdated government rules that sometimes became barriers to eased retirement, need to be updated without weakening their intended worker protections. In particular, regulations prohibiting employers from keeping workers on the job part-time while using their pensions to pay them need to be revised to accommodate employees’ changing desires while also barring companies from exploiting them.

Our new tool under development, “ThePhazer”, will give aging workers step-by-step guidance to request and obtain flexible and phased retirement options. Why should the national media take notice?

Paul Kleyman: A promising tool such as ThePhazer can go a long way toward educating workers on the understanding that there are new possibilities for them and their communities, too.

Regarding the media, the first line of interest may well be in the nation’s shrinking newsrooms, where reporters over 50—hell, even over 40—have been among the first pushed out the door, to the extent that companies can do so to get around discrimination laws.

In terms of news content, though, reporters and columnists on economics and personal finance should have a keen interest in emerging retirement models. A tool such as ThePhazer might well provide reporters with a guide to questions they might ask in developing stories and a better understanding of what their audiences should know about their later-life prospects in the workplace.

photo credit: Paul Kleyman

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