Interview by Emily DeNitto
Sherry Lansing strives to lead "retiring" baby boomers into a new, productive stage of life.
Like many successful baby boomers, Sherry Lansing seems eager to give back to society. But not many retired baby boomers have turned this urge into a full-time job. At 62, Lansing is now a committed philanthropist and member of several boards, but she has reinvented herself several times over. She was named president of 20th Century Fox in 1980, making her the first woman to head a major film studio. She began her career as a teacher, then tried her hand at modeling and acting before moving to the other side of the camera. She oversaw Paramount Pictures as chairman for 12 years, until she retired in 2005. Lansing spoke with Worth features editor Emily DeNitto about life in her seventh decade.
So life begins again at 60.
I ALWAYS PLANNED TO LEAVE the entertainment industry when I was 60 and start a life of giving back. It's something I had been thinking about since I was in my early 50s. If you're lucky enough to have achieved your dream - which I had - and if you're lucky enough to have economic independence - which I did - you start to have this nagging feeling about life and mortality. You ask, "What's the third chapter all about?" Though I respect people who want to die at their desks, that wasn't what I was about.
And a former president and a blogger opened your eyes.
MY PARTICULAR ROLE MODEL was Jimmy Carter. I admire him so much for everything he's done in his life, but I especially admire him for his post-presidency. I was fortunate enough to meet him, talk with him and hear from him that this would be the best part of my life. It gave me the courage to set 60 as my target date to leave the entertainment business and form my own foundation dedicated to cancer research and education. I wanted to get involved in policy. I wanted to give back with my time, not just my money.
As I was going through this evolution, I got this idea that I must not be alone. I started to think about forming a movement of 60-plusers. How could we engage these people, put them back in the work force on a voluntary basis or nominal salary basis and use their skills?
Then a very weird thing happened. My friend Arianna Huffington kept asking me to write for her blog, the Huffington Post. So finally one day I blogged about how there seems to be such a problem with security, why don't we take retired police officers and put them on airplanes and at security sites, working part time. I'm not suggesting that anyone over 60 does not want to enjoy life. Believe me we do, and we want those walks in the park and to enjoy those moments of intimacy that perhaps we lost in our desire to have careers.
Why start a foundation? Why not just write checks?
IN 1988, ARMAND HAMMER and I founded Stop Cancer, which is dedicated to raising funds for cancer research. Conversely, the Sherry Lansing Foundation does not do any fundraising. The foundation funds cancer research via a number of larger organizations.
One of the benefits of running a foundation as opposed to writing a check is being able to support organizations and causes in an array of nonfinancial ways. The foundation spends considerable time and resources lending its talents to and developing ideas for a variety of organizations.
And you found others who share your vision of making a difference after 60.
TWO WEEKS AFTER I BLOGGED, I got a response from Marc Freedman of Civic Ventures. He said, "We're doing the same thing, and we have a book out called Prime Time
that you should read." I read the book, which is everything I believe in: that this is the prime time of your life; that you have an opportunity to grow and evolve; that you're going to want to give back, and we want to put you back in the work force, on a voluntary basis, to help make the world a better place. Seventy-six million baby boomers are turning 60 this year. When you reach that point in life, you start to think about what's important. They want to give back; they want to feel relevant.
So we formed a partnership. I'm now on the board of Civic Ventures. We're organizing a 10-year campaign to put people back to work in a voluntary way.
You are hoping this not only inspires older adults, but changes the way society views them.
YES, BECAUSE 60 isn't 60 anymore. Look at what even 70 is today; it's not what it was when my parents were that age.
The baby boomers reinvented the world once. They're not going to go off quietly playing 18 holes of golf every day, though we aren't taking their balls away from them.
And this led you to create a prize.
YES, WE'RE LAUNCHING this movement with the Purpose Prize. The prize is for anyone over 60, who in that time of their life did something to make the world a better place. We're giving five people $100,000 each to help their work and 15 people $10,000 each. We had thousands of applicants.
Did you hear from affluent people?
WE HEARD FROM PEOPLE of all backgrounds. The 20 finalists will make you cry. There are high-net-worth people and corporate' heads, but there are also folks like a Connecticut man who started a program for the physically and mentally handicapped in high schools. He hooks them up with businesses and corporations that are giving them internships, so that when they graduate high school, they have jobs.
Another finalist is Judea Pearl, father of the slain Wall Street Journal
reporter Daniel Pearl. Judea, a Jew, is going around the world, city by city, college by college, with a Palestinian man to help create an Arab-Jewish dialogue. They are two grandfathers talking about the differences. Pearl says this is his "vengeance" for his son's death. This is the caliber of people we're seeing.
They, in turn, also instruct you
IT HUMBLES ME. It inspires me. It makes me think that there really is an amazing group of people out there who need to be heard. It was the hardest thing to pick the winners. It made me believe in the potential - even with all the ugliness going on in the world - of the human spirit. It made me know that this third chapter is the best chapter of all.
The other judges are peers, as well.
THEY INCLUDE PEOPLE LIKE Sidney Poitier, Monica Lozano, Cookie Roberts, Gloria Steinem. They're all over 60, and they've continued to have really vital lives. They're all examples of people who have done wonderful things.
What does this movement imply for affluent boomers?
YOU CAN JUST DO IT, and there's no excuse for not doing it. Our finalists, by and large, didn't have tremendous wealth, so they had to slog through the bureaucracies to make things happen by sheer will and passion. If you have a high net worth, you can change the world.
Like Warren Buffett, who is 77, uniting with Bill Gates, who is 51.
THEY'RE THE POSTER BOYS for what we're doing. They've made volunteerism cool. If you've been blessed by economic success, you can actually find things yourself. Any dream you have to make the world a better place, you can actually say, "I'm setting this up." When you have achieved all your dreams and have achieved great wealth, what are you going to do with it? How many houses and boats do you need? At the end, it becomes hollow, unless you try to have some relevancy in your life and unless you can see that you will leave something behind in your life that will last.
The only reason to make a lot of money is to be able to give it all away. If you earned it over a lifetime, you fulfilled your dream. If you inherited it, think of what you have and how you could actually put the money to work to change the world. It's a wonderful opportunity.
How does this fit into your work on health and education?
I'VE ALWAYS BEEN ACTIVE in cancer research because I lost my mother to cancer, but also in education because I was a teacher. Now I can do philanthropy full time. There's a season to do everything. You want different things as you evolve, and this is far and away the happiest time in my life.
My passion is the policy. I was appointed to the stem cell oversight committee, which is an eight-year government committee in California, a state that voted $3 billion for stem cell research. I'm one of those appointed to oversee funding and co-chair the standards committee. That's really like a full-time job. I've also taken over as chair of health services for the University of California Regents; that's a 12-year appointment.
And, to come full circle, you now work with President Carter.
ABOUT A WEEK AFTER I announced my resignation, I was on my way to Long Beach for a sneak preview of Lemony Snicket
when my secretary called and said President Carter was on the phone. I picked it up, and he said, "Sherry, I've just come from a board meeting, and we've unanimously voted to make you a member of the Carter Center. We hope you'll accept" I just started to cry. It confirmed that everything I'm doing now is the right move. He's remarkable, and the Carter Center is wonderful, but just being in his presence makes you a better person. He's a living example of a life well spent.
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