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March 24, 2003
Volume 81, Number 12
CENEAR 81 12 p. 39
ISSN 0009-2347



Cheese and wine aren't the only things that improve with age, especially when served on a silver platter or in a silver goblet! At the Kanawha Valley Local Section Meeting a few months ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Ray Crist. Not only is he a 77-year member of the American Chemical Society, but he also was recently honored by the nonprofit organization Experience Works for being the oldest worker in America (C&EN, Sept. 23, 2002, page 93). This 103-year-old chemist--whose research career spans 80 years and includes working on the Manhattan Project--still logs 40 hours a week in his laboratory at Messiah College. Crist says that the opportunity to mentor students is a big part of what keeps him going.

We have a wonderful opportunity to harness the expertise and enthusiasm of our growing number of senior members before they lose interest in ACS activities and let their memberships lapse.
Crist is becoming the norm, not the exception. One of the recipients of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 85-year-old John Fenn, did not begin his Nobel-winning research until he was in his 60s. Thanks to--of course--chemistry, people are leading longer, healthier, and more productive lives. Retirement has become a time for renewal, not retreat. But how many of us know how we are going to spend the Indian summer of our lives?

The 2000 ACS study of mature career chemists revealed that a whopping 40% of ACS full members, including retirees, are over the age of 50 (C&EN, June 5, 2000, page 42). Slightly more than 30% of respondents ages 60 to 64 reported that they were retired, and nearly 60% of those ages 65 to 69 said they were retired. These figures are expected to grow as the first wave of America's 76 million baby boomers turns 65 in 2011. Even as the society works to attract younger and more diverse members, it can't afford to ignore this growing segment of the ACS membership.

In 1999, a task force was convened to determine whether the society was meeting the needs of its senior and retired members. Last August, they reported that, through existing committees and offices, the society had sufficient programs in place to address the major issues and concerns of this group. The task force decided against forming a national committee and suggested instead that an ACS staff person be appointed to answer questions and that information for senior and retired chemists be more accessible and prominent on ACS websites.

I believe we need to take a more proactive approach. I don't know of a single local section or division chair who has called to complain about too many volunteers and not enough for them to do. The majority of respondents to the 2000 study of mature career chemists reported that they had not participated in any ACS-sponsored activities recently. As of 2001, just 22 of the society's 189 local sections had retired or senior chemist committees.

Part of the problem is how we think about older people. Older does not mean out-of-order. According to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), about 80% of Americans 65 and older are active and fully capable of contributing to society. Eight in 10 baby boomers report that they plan to work during retirement, though not necessarily in the same job or full time. AARP's research also says that older people want to spend more time volunteering, and, for example, many of them want to work with children. ACS must have a Washington, D.C.-based, dedicated program that advises and guides local section and division efforts to keep senior members professionally active.

As a membership organization, ACS benefits greatly from the service of its member-volunteers. ACS programs that we take for granted--from national meetings to National Chemistry Week--simply would not be possible without the dedicated time and efforts of local section and division volunteers. A national program would help local sections and divisions better organize these individuals for our society and for society in general.

In the next decade or so, we have a wonderful opportunity to harness the expertise and enthusiasm of our growing number of senior members before they lose interest in ACS activities and let their memberships lapse. Local sections have told us that retired and senior chemists like to do demonstrations and act as "chemistry ambassadors." Perhaps local senior chemist groups could partner with other groups such as Big Brother/Big Sister (as AARP has done) and share their wonder for chemistry with young people. These members can also become more involved in public policy issues without leaving their homes by participating in the Legislative Action Network
(, which requires only a personal computer and Web access. They can become activists, helping to improve local science and math programs and meeting with community leaders to support these areas.

Unhampered by the demands of young families or budding careers, senior members often have the one thing that seems increasingly elusive in American life: time. After all, as W. Somerset Maugham wrote: "When I was young, I was amazed at Plutarch's statement that the elder Cato began at the age of 80 to learn Greek. I am amazed no longer. Old age is ready to undertake tasks that youth shirked because they would take too long."

ACS should establish a "Silver Circle" of senior members to mine these riches.


Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2003 American Chemical Society

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[C&EN, Sept. 23, page 93]

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