Baby boomers need to let go

We’re stifling the next generation; term limits are necessary

ALMOST A DECADE AGO, a small group of civic leaders in business, government, labor, and academia decided to organize an intimate retreat, a mini Aspen or Renaissance weekend, called the Commonwealth Summit. It had one objective, to think big. We believed Massachusetts had much to offer the nation, but we needed to get out of the weeds and encourage a bolder vision for healthcare, education, energy, and income inequality. The retreat has not solved the problems of the world, but these stimulating conversations continue to build new networks which forge ahead.

One problem. The retreat was comprised primarily of baby boomers who lead our institutions. Younger attendees, a tiny minority in their thirties and forties, approached the aging organizers and argued for diversity. Boston is a tough town to break into, they said, and baby boomers weren’t letting go. Beyond race and gender, we needed youth. As we met with more leaders of the next generation, we were blown away, not just by their intellect, commitments, and energy, but because some of us simply didn’t know they existed.

We corrected our mistake. We mixed baby boomers with fresh faces, and invigorated the conversation.

While everyone has a different story to tell and contribution to make, baby boomers need to start to let go. Once upon a time, we retired when we were 65 and lived until 75. Since many now believe we will live forever, we too often hang on too long. The result, we’re stifling the next generation of leaders.

Having led a small non-profit for a decade, I decided to practice what I preach. I recently stepped down. It wasn’t easy. I loved my job, my team, and I thought I still had more to offer. But having turned 65, I decided to find a younger and more counter-intuitive leader to take us into the future. She’s in her thirties, smarter than I am, and terrific.

I’m not done. I’m taking a “gap year” (entirely wasted on the young). Our generation needs to understand there are many ways to contribute. We can teach, write, mentor, and support civic projects. We can even start new careers. We don’t need to cling to institutional leadership. We run the risk of going stale.

Nowhere is this problem more evident than in our government. As I leave, I’d be happy to take Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell with me. They’re part of the problem.  America yearns for fresh faces and a fresh start.  As a young state legislator, I strongly opposed “term limits.”  I thought we had them; we called them elections. Voters decided who stayed and who went. And some even grew better with age. Besides, we argued, if legislators are short-termers and lobbyists are in for the long term, lobbyists will rule.

Nonsense. Incumbents gerrymander safe districts and build power and excessive war chests. They’re almost impossible to beat and they stay forever. And lobbyists already rule precisely by building long-term relationships with long-term incumbents. They wouldn’t know what to do if legislators kept rotating out. We need to break the cycle. We need to restore faith. We need to revisit term limits in government. While we need the wisdom that comes with experience, we also need to promote the next generation of leaders. The sooner the better.

Meet the Author
Baby boomers should not fear letting go. There’s much we still can offer, without holding all the levers of power.

George Bachrach formerly ran the Environmental League of Massachusetts.