Career reinvention may be more of a necessity than a virtue for older Americans, but working longer can make a difference beyond your bottom line.
By Mark Miller | 06-02-11 | 06:00 AM | Email Article

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.

Mark Miller is a nationally recognized expert on trends in retirement and aging. He also contributes to Reuters,, and The New York Times. His book, Jolt: Stories of Trauma and Transformation, will be published in February by Post Hill Press.

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.

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