Most Americans are crafting meaningful work in their later stages of life. It's a direction that brings balance and an ability to be impactful in a whole new way.
"More and more people — sometimes by necessity, sometimes by choice — are forgoing traditional retirement and investing a new state of life and work," said Marci Alboher, author of The Encore Career Handbook.
Alboher is part of a movement that has named this later-in-life stage "encore careers," paid or volunteer work that has a social impact. An encore career can last from a few years to 20 or more. While 9 million baby boomers already have entered their encore phase, another 31 million will soon make the leap in that direction, according to Encore.org, a nonprofit organization that promotes "second acts."
The concept of an encore career is being buoyed by a convergence of trends: financial realities, layoffs, long life spans and the desire for a more purposeful existence during the aging process. "It's a way to leave a mark that makes things better for future generations," Alboher said. "But usually it's not quick or easy. It's a slow metamorphosis involving baby steps, detours, persistence, creativity and a do-it-yourself spirit."
An encore career job might be a nurse or health aide. It could be a teacher, tutor or fundraiser, founder of a nonprofit, or even an entrepreneur that solves a social problem. For many, it has become the answer to "now what?" and "what will be my legacy?"
Knowing what's ahead, some people plan their encore career for years, beginning as early as their 50s. They use travel time to build alliances or weekends to take a community college course.
Though he's far from retirement age, my 50-year-old husband surely will need an encore career. Even now, he can't sit still on days off from work, filling his days with house projects and coming up with new ones once the current list is exhausted. Yet he regularly talks about how he looks forward to retirement — a disaster in the making for a man without a mission.
The reignite-rather-than-retire movement has been recent, but it may already have played a role in curbing the high rate of suicide for older males. David Cohen, a professor of psychology at University of Texas, had previously discovered a high rate of suicide for males in the 65-to-74 year old age group, observing that this set was susceptible because of its preoccupation with lost status and higher risk of apathy and isolation. That high rate has lowered in recent years.
Vicki Cerda, 53, already has begun her transition. After 20 years as an information technology trainer for Florida Power & Light in Miami, her position was eliminated.
Today, Certa splits her time between a seasonal paid job as a conference planner and a volunteer work for a nonprofit organization, e-learning for Kids Foundation, which provides free educational workshops on the Internet for children ages, 5 to 12. The teachers are volunteers, too. "This is cool because it's an encore career that I can do from anywhere and I feel like I'm making a difference," she said.
Yet, the transition phase requires an emotional adjustment or identity shift. And finding new ways to use skills, contacts and instincts may take time. "You may feel like what some have started calling 'a previously important person,' " Alboher said.