Career reinvention was a big buzzword among many baby boomers even before the economy crashed in 2008. Surveys showed a large majority of the biggest generation aspired to launch new careers in their 50s and 60s--often in fields where they hoped to make a difference--teaching, health care, or the nonprofit world.
Tough new economic realities have transformed career reinvention from a virtue into a necessity for millions of older Americans who aren't ready to retire or simply can't afford to quit working. For example, just 23% of Americans age 50-59 have saved more than $250,000 toward retirement, according to the 12th Annual Transamerica Retirement Survey.
But hard times have not forced many older boomers to give up their dreams of second careers with meaning. The aspirations are tied to the broader idea that our traditional notion of retirement needs reinvention--a concept that many retirement gurus have struggled to label, so far without much success. The name that comes closest, in my view: the encore career.
The phrase was coined by Civic Ventures, a California-based nonprofit think tank and incubator for social entrepreneurship led by Marc Freedman, author of the new book The Big Shift: Navigating The New Stage Beyond Midlife (Public Affairs, 2011). Freedman is one of the nation's leading thinkers on how America can redefine the second half of life with a sense of social and individual renewal.
Civic Ventures has launched a movement around encore careers with two main themes: second careers with meaning, and social entrepreneurship. It operates a social networking site, local events all over the country, and a high-profile annual award program called the Purpose Prize. Now in its sixth year, the award recognizes older career trailblazers who have demonstrated creative and effective work tackling social problems. It has evolved into a sort of Oscar for social entrepreneurship. Last year's winners were chosen from 1,400 nominees; five winners received $100,000 prizes, with another five recipients getting $50,000 awards.
At a time when the jobs picture looks bleak, Freedman remains optimistic about the potential contributions of older workers. The jobless rate for workers over age 55 stood at 6.5% in April--considerably lower than its peak of 7.3% last August, and much lower than the overall 9% rate. But older unemployed workers are having a much more difficult time finding new work. Last month, job searches required 44.6 weeks for workers age 55-64, much higher than for younger workers.
Freedman's new book looks far beyond the immediate economic crisis. With people living healthier, longer lives, he argues for creating a new map that includes a new stage between the middle years and anything resembling old age. "People who are coming up to that juncture right now are realizing they are not going to be old for 20 years, and probably can't sustain a retirement that's decades in duration," he says. "So they're thinking about this chapter in a new way."
But more is at stake than how boomers will spend their time. Freedman sees encore careers as a key solution to the challenges we face as the population ages. "We've got people who have an enormous amount of experience, and I think for the first time in our history in these big numbers, the time to do something with it," he says. Productive older workers can have a positive impact as taxpayers and by lightening the demands on entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
Freedman's book urges adoption of policy ideas to help people save and train for midlife career transitions--like tax-advantaged Individual Purpose Accounts, flexible access to Social Security benefits, and new approaches to education and national service. (To learn more, click to see my recent video interview with Freedman.)
Promising Post-Recession Careers
Can the encore career movement have a significant impact in a job-starved economy?
Civic Ventures took a stab at answering that question last year with a research report it commissioned that sought to identify the most promising post-recession careers.
The report, by economist Barry Bluestone of Northeastern University in Boston, was based on long-range labor force projections by the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, which point toward worker shortages in key social sector jobs. Bluestone predicts that within the next eight years, there could be at least 5 million job vacancies in the United States, nearly half of them in social sector jobs in education, health-care, government, and nonprofit organizations.
Even if boomers retire at the same rate and age as previous generations, the echo boomer demographic now coming of age will be too small to fill all the expected openings, he argues. That will create more demand for older workers to stay on the job--something baby boomers have said all along they intend to do.
"We're going to see a remarkable reshaping of our labor force," Bluestone says. "The rate of labor force participation by the 55-plus population is going to be much higher, and older workers will represent a much higher percentage of the overall workforce."
Bluestone's report envisions nearly 75% of 55- to 64-year-olds working in 2018, far higher than the 65% who were working in 2008. Likewise, he thinks 30% of Americans age 65-74 could be working in 2018, much higher than the current rate of 25%.
Bluestone forecasts that the fast-growing encore job categories will include primary, secondary and special education teachers, registered nurses, home health aids, and medical assistants.
| Total Social/Government Sector -- Projected Encore Career
Growth 2008-2018 (in thousands)
|Primary, Secondary, and Special Education Teachers||
|Home Health Aides||
|Personal and Home Care Aides||
|Nursing Aides, Orderlies, and Attendants||
|Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses||
|Business Operations Specialists||
|General and Operations Managers||
|Child Care Workers||
|Receptionists and Information Clerks||
|Medical and Health Service Managers||
|Social and Human Service Assistants||
|Maids and Housekeeping Cleaners||
|Educational, Vocational, and School Counselors||
|Computer Support Specialists||
|Office Clerks, General||
|Managers, All Other||
|Social and Community Service Managers||
|Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers||
|Accountants and Auditors||
|Medical and Public Health Social Workers||
|Bookkeeping, Accounting, and Auditing Clerks||
|Administrative Services Managers||
|Computer Systems Analysts||
|Human Resources, Trading, Labor Relations Specialists||
|Cooks, Institution and Cafeteria||
|Source: Lacey and Wright, 'Occupational Employment Projections to
2018,' Analysis of Labor Market Assessment Tool
Prize-Winning Social Entrepreneurs
The Purpose Prize award provides a high-profile storytelling venue and showcase for courageous and effective older social entrepreneurs. Here are two recent examples of award-winners; read and watch more videos on social entrepreneurship at the Purpose Prize website.