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Outside the Box: How older Americans can generate a post-COVID ‘vaccine dividend’ for the U.S. economy

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I first visited the Oakland Coliseum on a glorious late summer day in 1990. Oakland A’s star right-hander Bob Welch pitched magnificently that day en route to winning 27 games and the Cy Young Award. It was my fondest Coliseum memory until the other day when I left Interstate 880 at the stadium exit, turned onto Joe Morgan Drive, and wound my way past police barricades into Parking Lot A.

Like so many other older people flocking to the FEMA supersite, I was there to get my COVID vaccination. My shot was administered by two upbeat, idealistic young people — one from rural California, the other from Minnesota — who had ventured to Oakland, Calif. out of a sense of service, they told me. Within a half hour, I was headed home, shocked at moving towards a safety that long seemed out of reach.

I’m still overwhelmed by feelings of liberation and gratitude. Liberation to be able to reconnect soon with family, friends, neighbors, society. Gratitude at having been given priority, by virtue of my age, at a time when so many others are still waiting their turn. And I feel a sense of responsibility, too — determined to make the most of my safer status. I suspect I’m not alone. 

More than three-quarters of Americans 65 and over have already received at least one shot. We’ve been given priority status because of our vulnerability to the virus. With vaccinations, we’re less vulnerable — and potentially more valuable in ways that go beyond stimulating the economy by eating in restaurants or going to baseball games.

We’re an army of older people in a position to use our experience, wisdom, and antibodies to pay back the investment in us. Call it the Vaccine Dividend. It’s time to call on older Americans to roll up our sleeves a second time, to give ourselves to a higher cause and join those idealistic young people in getting our nation back on its feet.

President Joe Biden issued a broad appeal to all Americans to step up in his “I Need You!” speech to the nation. I’d like to see our 78-year-old president issue a direct call to action to his agemates, perhaps joined by the similarly seasoned Dr. Anthony Fauci, 80, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, 80, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, 79, and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, 70.

Biden could say we’ve survived a lively debate about elders in the pandemic. It wasn’t that long ago when some argued that the older population’s sole role in this fight was to stay home, stay safe, and essentially stay out of the way. Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick went so far as to suggest that older people were expendable — and that they should be willing to sacrifice themselves — if it meant keeping the economy afloat. Fortunately, wiser sentiments prevailed. 

Biden could point out that so many of us, plagued by loss, loneliness and purposelessness during the pandemic, are ready to reengage and recommit. There is pent-up energy and a renewed sense of moral obligation. I feel it personally.
But what do we do with that feeling, not just as individuals but collectively, as a generation? Maybe not the Greatest Generation but, for those of us who’ve been vaccinated and survived the pandemic, a grateful generation. 

I suggest that Biden point us to a provision buried in the American Rescue Plan: a $1 billion infusion of new money for national service. What beautiful irony that a powerful path to purpose and connection for America’s elders, the generation the Peace Corps was created for in the first place, resides in service.

I’d like to see a call not only to serve, but to serve alongside younger people — like those who put the vaccine in my arm. Why not a co-generational call that meets the moment, helping to vaccinate more Americans and rebuild the nation’s social fabric? A corps aimed not just at surviving the pandemic, but at thriving beyond it.

Such a mobilization might produce both a talent windfall and a windfall of understanding, especially if it’s designed to bring older and younger people together in ways that remind us of our common humanity and help prepare us for the reality of navigating the multigenerational, multiracial society that will be a hallmark of this century.

Marc Freedman is CEO of Encore.org and the author, most recently of “How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations,” now in paperback.

More: Once considered on the cusp of retirement, these people are taking a ‘gap year’ after successful careers

Plus: A revolutionary ‘gray army’ of older workers is fighting our youth-obsessed culture — and we’ll all benefit if they win

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