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My Time by Abigail Trafford

A Time for Flexibility

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, November 30, 2004; Page HE01

What do retirees and mothers of young children have in common?

They both want jobs with flexible schedules.

Working moms -- and dads -- want flexibility in meeting the demands of raising a family while meeting the expectations of the boss. Men and women who plan to work after retirement want flexibility so they can meet their personal need to regenerate with education, travel, volunteer service and caring for relatives -- even as they fulfill the needs of an employer.

Flexibility means part-time work, episodic work, job-sharing and general policies that help people manage their private lives. It's a workplace culture that focuses on getting the job done rather than punching time on the clock.

But a good job with flexibility is hard to find.

Senior Services of Albany, N.Y., a nonprofit agency that provides programs and services to older men and women in New York state's capital region, took a first step when it devised a high-level, part-time job to create a new department of volunteers. The leading candidate had recently retired after 20 years in state government. But the woman also wanted to take month-long chunks of time off without pay to travel with her husband.

Could the job get done in these circumstances? "It was a risk we took," said Ann G. DiSarro, executive director of Senior Services. But it was worth a try. "We're like a small business. We're not in a bureaucracy with standards for time off. It was easy for us to do. The exchange is, you get a person who is very qualified for the job." Over the next five years, Robyn Potter, mother of three, grandmother of six, put together a new base of volunteers. She expanded the Meals on Wheels program by using capable men and women who were mentally or physically disabled to deliver the meals to the isolated and the frail, a system that benefited both givers and receivers and saved money on hired drivers. She developed training protocols and built up a network of volunteers in schools, churches and community centers.

Meanwhile, she took long trips with her husband as part of the Earthwatch study program, monitoring various species of wildlife, from the platypus in Australia to the black rhino in Kenya.

Potter quickly saw that the job was cyclical, so she scheduled her trips six months in advance during down periods. The agency never had to hire someone to cover for her.

She also brought to the job the advantages from a lifetime of experience. The ability to work independently, organize well and follow through stemmed from "my work experience, my experience as a volunteer, my experience as a mother," she explained. She and her husband had adopted two hard-to-place children and become community advocates to get them needed services. She learned to juggle, set priorities and be persistent. "You need those don't-give-up skills," she said. "You learn what to let go of, what you need to follow through on. . . . You just keep making phone calls."

The result of her hiring by Senior Services was win-win. "She did these exotic travels and we got a great volunteer department," DiSarro said.

"It was a give and take on both sides that worked out for both of us," said Potter. "Most employers do not take that risk." Research by Phyllis Moen, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota, shows that people in their fifties and sixties and beyond want to continue to work, but they don't want to continue in their old jobs. They want new jobs -- usually ones with flexibility.

When I had my first child in 1967, it was assumed that I would quit my job. That assumption has been overturned, as moms flooded the workplace, breaking down barriers against women and promoting family-friendly policies.

A similar evolution is occurring with retirees. Until recently it was assumed that a person who retired after a long career would stop working, go to Florida and play golf. Today, older men and women may want to play more golf and enjoy more leisure, but they also want -- and need -- to work.

There's a natural alliance between working parents and retirees to create more opportunities outside the traditional full-time mold and break down prejudice against part-time workers. Together, these two populations representing millions of Americans could form a critical mass for change.

We've all come a long way -- but there's a long way to go.•

Are you in transition? Have you found your what-next? Are your primary relationships changing? Respond by e-mail to mytime@washpost.com. To send U.S. mail, see the address on Page F2; mark the envelope "My Time."


© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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