A New York investment banker becomes a small-town chef. A techie turns acupuncturist. An entrenched corporate exec accepts an early retirement package and converts to the ministry. Longer life spans, concerns about outliving retirement savings, and a desire to stay productive are inducing more and more workers nearing or in retirement to launch second careers.
As many as 8.4 million Americans between the ages of 44 and 70 have already launched "encore careers," positions that combine income with personal meaning and social impact, according to a recent survey on boomers, work, and aging by the MetLife Foundation and Civic Ventures, a San Francisco think tank. Of those workers surveyed who are not already in second careers, half are interested in them.
People are working well beyond the traditional mid-60s retirement age for a variety of reasons. "Very few retirees start a second career purely for the money," says Marc Freedman, founder and CEO of Civic Ventures and author of Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life. "They’re searching for work that is fulfilling and gets them out of bed in the morning." For some, the income is essential. For others, it’s an added insurance policy against dwindling retirement accounts.
While many of these work transitions involve following a dream or a calling, you don’t want to get caught up in the romance of it all. "There is a blitheness that all you have to do is embrace your passion and the rest happens magically," Freedman says. "It’s not that easy. You don’t open the doors to your bed-and-breakfast and the cheering crowds arrive." Here are six key steps to planning your next career.
1. Prepare yourself.
Many people know they want to keep working or even need to, yet they wrestle with just what it is they’re looking for in their job and life. Start by making an honest appraisal of your skills and interests. Much of what you already know is transferable to your next undertaking. The key is to match your next job or career to your interests and personality. To help get you started, toss around ideas for career alternatives with friends and family. Check out self-assessment quizzes at CareerPath.com and Monster.com’s career advice section.
If you’re not sure what you want to do, don’t despair. "The hard part for some people is figuring out what it is that interests them," says Betsy Werley, executive director of the Transition Network, a New York City-based networking group for women over 50, which offers lectures on career change. "They dabble with vague ideas, but it’s important to really work toward something to make it happen."
Many late-life career jumpers are eager to start their own entrepreneurial adventure. But if you aren’t ready to put yourself out there financially or personally, that can be risky, Werley says. "It all comes down to your mind-set."
It’s important not to think of your new career as a brief hiatus before you retire in earnest. Approach the venture as if you would be doing it for the next 10 or even 20 years, if you opt for an early retirement payout. It will take groundwork and fortitude to get it right. Ideally, you should plan this transition in your 50s and early 60s, before you leave your current job.
Things rarely fall into place right off the bat. The longer your time horizon is, the better your chances of success. You will have time to weather the setbacks and ups and downs of learning the ropes in a new field or even testing out a few careers before you find the one that clicks.
2. Research where the jobs are.
It helps to look in fields where there’s strong job growth. The current housing slump and economic uncertainty may make this a miserable time to try out a career in real estate or retail. But fields like healthcare, education (particularly preschool through 12th grade), and technical consulting services are growing rapidly, with new niches and specialties popping up all the time.
You’ll find useful details about specific jobs in the Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook. In healthcare, for instance, there are home and personal care jobs helping people with special needs such as autistic children and Alzheimer’s patients, as well as a growing need for elder care. The aging population is also driving up demand for nutritionists, physical therapists, speech and language specialists, and activity aides.
The need is such that it’s not unusual to find streamlined training, including train-while-you-work positions, says Ellen Freudenheim, author of "The Boomers’ Guide to Good Work," available at civicventures.org.You can also score flexible schedules and opportunities to run your own business. The latter might sound tempting, but many people who start their own businesses find themselves working longer hours than they ever did in their first career.
Careerbuilder.com is a great place to start your job search. But job sites for seniors like Workforce50.com, Seniors4Hire.org, RetiredBrains.com, and AARP’s annual list of the Best Employers for Workers Over 50 can direct you to workplaces that are particularly friendly to aging boomers. You might also tap into the Encore career finder for openings at nonprofits. "Small and midsize companies typically are more likely to see you as an individual and value your experience than a large corporation," Werley says.
When it comes to getting a new job, be forewarned: Age discrimination is real. There’s a perception that people over 50 or 60 will be just passing through as a transition into retirement. "Employers are loath to hire someone who they think will be out the door in a year or two," Freedman says.
3. Connect with a network.
It helps to find a group of like-minded people who have already gone through late-life career change. You can learn from their firsthand experiences of how they made the move. It’s critical to soak up as much as you can about the businesses that appeal to you. Talk with people who work in those fields. Apply for an internship or fellowship. Consider volunteering or moonlighting to get a sense of what the job entails.
Questions to ask: What are the challenges and rewards? How about pay, hours, and the work climate? What training or education will you need? What opportunities might be out there for someone with your background?
4. Upgrade your skills and education.
Chances are you’ll need to learn new skills and maybe even earn a degree in a new field. If possible, take mandatory courses before retiring or leaving your current job. Professional programs, grad schools, and community colleges offer evening and weekend classes that you can squeeze into your current schedule. Your current employer might pay part of the bill, but make sure you check the fine print; you might have to reimburse tuition expenses if you leave your job within a set time frame.
5. Evaluate your finances.
Your new salary may be far less than you were earning in your first career if, say, you choose to work in a more philanthropic field or have a more flexible schedule. As a result, you may need to adjust your lifestyle if you’re relying on the income for living expenses. If you’re already receiving Social Security benefits, keep in mind that earning income may reduce them. If you decide to embark on an entrepreneurial path, you might have to dig into savings or even take out a loan for start-up expenditures. And it’s quite possible that you could be saddled with a tuition bill or even go without income for a year or so while you gain necessary training for a new line of work.
If you’re going back to school, seek financial aid. You don’t need to be college age to get a subsidized loan—there’s no age limit—and you’re eligible as a part-time student, too. Scholarships and grants are available for older students. Try sites such as FastWeb.com to scout out what’s available.
Take advantage of educational tax breaks. Depending on your income, you might qualify for the lifetime learning credit, worth up to $2,000 each year. If you make too much to qualify, you still might be able to claim a deduction associated with tuition and fees, up to $4,000. You can get details at IRS.gov or the tax benefits guide at NASFAA.org.
6. Don’t let your age get in the way.
" I don’t think it is ever too late to start a second career," Werley says. "The issue is not age but personal health, energy level, and having an entrepreneurial spirit." After all, you always have to be prepared to meet the challenge of selling yourself, whether you’re starting anew as an employee or opening your own business.
Kerry Hannon is the author of What’s Next? Follow Your Passions and Find Your Dream Job (Chronicle Books) available May 1, 2010. This article originally appeared in U.S. News and World Report.