Radically Rural: Turning the Silver Tsunami into Gold
The life experience of older rural Americans can provide an entrepreneurial edge, says a social innovator.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Today we introduce a new column, “Radically Rural,” which will explore ways rural leaders are building stronger communities through innovative strategies. The column is produced by the organizers of Radically Rural, an annual summit of rural leaders that last year brought together almost 600 rural leaders from 25 states working in arts and culture, main street development, community journalism, land and community, entrepreneurship, and renewable energy. For more information on Radically Rural, visit the organization’s website or contact them via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A “silver tsunami” is coming, bringing with it a wave of change. The baby boomers, a large and economically influential population, have reached the latter half of life, and experts say their actions will flood the housing market, swamp our healthcare system , and sink the workforce.
But Elizabeth Isele, social innovator and founder of The Global Institute for Experienced Entrepreneurship (GIEE), has a different take. “Why aren’t we measuring it in terms of potential and opportunity?” she asks. Isele encourages rural regions and others to see the upside of their aging populations as a “gold tsunami,” the “experienced economy” as she refers to it.
At the age of 70, she launched her organization to redefine the future of work and traditional retirement. On any given day, you’ll find her taking this conversation to the forefront, whether it’s with international government officials or small-town leaders.
For instance, at a recent summit held in the Northeast, Isele worked with over 50 rural leaders, advocates, and planners to get real about leveraging the expertise of community elders. The presentation and brainstorming session specifically focused on spurring seasoned professionals to take advantage of the area’s existing entrepreneurship and economic development programs.
Every person in the room was asked to come up with one action step, something Isele insists on whenever she takes a speaking commitment. “It may be just a little, tiny thing that gets changed, but those little tiny things cumulatively make greater change,” she says. “That really empowers people in amazing ways.”
Her call to action is a poignant one for rural regions, which tend to be home to a larger slice of the aging population. “There’s an urgency because this demographic is growing in size,” she says. According to the United States Census Bureau’s recent findings, “More than 1 in 5 older Americans live in rural areas, many concentrated in states where more than half of their older populations are in rural areas.” The bureau notes that this trend is bound to “shape the nation at a time when graying continues as more baby boomers turn 65.” But in what way?
Isele emphasizes that the key will be transforming the mindset around aging and redefining what the later decades of life look like. She also suggests entrepreneurship is one powerful pathway. “For many older people … I think they don’t realize the resources that they have embedded in their experience,” she says.
The Experience Incubator she’s created at GEII helps people who are 50+ decode their entrepreneurial history by revisiting the accomplishments of which they’re most proud. It also encourages them to reflect on the value of what she has dubbed their “brain trust.” “They have lived their lives to the extent that if they don’t know how to do something, you can bet that they know somebody who does,” she explains.
Calling on that network, older professionals have the know-how and connections to launch successful new businesses, consult and mentor in the community, and play a critical role in shaping policies for the future. Because, let’s face it, none of us are getting any younger.
People are living longer, healthier lives, opting to continue their work or even start new careers late in life. Darla Mercado, a personal finance writer for CNBC, notes that “[m]ore than 30% of workers aged 65 to 74 are expected to be in the workforce in 2026, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.”
Those workers are boosting economies and employment rates, paying taxes, and contributing to the healthcare system versus drawing on it. “It has been proven that people who work longer, who are engaged and continue to stay relevant, remain healthy longer,” Isele notes.
However, for seniors, staying involved in the community can pose a challenge, particularly in rural America, where lacking or misguided infrastructure can create obstacles. Isele points to the beautiful retirement estates across New England as an example.
Though they’re advertised as pristine environments seniors will love as they finally sit back and relax, those facilities often have the opposite effect. “By isolating people like this…you’re just perpetuating the problem instead of being inclusive,” Isele says.
In 2018, the scientific journal Geriatrics published an article titled “A Scoping Review: Social Participation as a Cornerstone of Successful Aging in Place among Rural Older Adults.” The authors note: “By being part of a community where they are known and they know people, rural elders continue to find meaning, the key to achieving successful aging in this last stage of life.”
The article concludes it’s important that “researchers, policy-makers, and service providers use the lived experience of aging adults to shape decisions.” When they do, the resulting social and financial capital are game-changers.
“This is not rocket science; this is just common sense,” Isele says.