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Work & Purpose

What’s Holding Us Back From Encore Careers?

An Encore Public Voices Fellow has some theories, and advice


Recently, I was on a coast-to-coast flight with a lot of disgruntled passengers. Our scheduled departure had been delayed by five hours, and then was further delayed by a “technical problem.” The pilot gave the usual apologies, but it did little to stem the frustration mounting throughout the cabin.

Then something unexpected happened: The pilot took the microphone again to announce that this was his last flight. He would be retiring the next day, after 30+ years with the airline. The plane burst into applause and cheers.

Our Anachronistic View of Retirement

Our society sees retirement as a happy milestone — the accomplishment of a career and the completion of one’s duty leading to well-deserved “time off.” But this view is anachronistic.

Our idea of retirement has changed surprisingly little in the last 50 years even though today’s retirees can expect another two or three decades mostly in good health.

Longevity has been a game changer for retirement. Longer lives require greater financial resources, even more so if health deteriorates and illnesses become chronic. The truth is, most of us can’t afford to take a 20-year vacation. But it also means our later years are richer in opportunities.

Life Reinvention Through an Encore Career

Those who are reinventing this time of life promote the “encore career.” Sometimes it’s in a distant field from previous work, with a slower pace, greater flexibility, a social impact component and an income that increases financial security. Sometimes. it’s entrepreneurship (though this option should be considered carefully) or even work in the sharing and gig economies.

“We still tend to write people off and expect less of them after they hit certain milestones, especially when they announce retirement.”

The concept of encoring, popularized and promoted by Marc Freedman, founder of Encore.org, has been around for a while and is gaining traction. But it is still far from being mainstream. Why? What’s holding us back?

Part of it has to do with ageism, which makes people think of retirement as an end, rather than a new beginning; that restarting has an upper age limit around midlife.

“We still tend to write people off and expect less of them after they hit certain milestones, especially when they announce retirement,” says Marci Alboher, vice president for strategic communications at Encore.org.

Misplaced Fear of Losing Status

Another reason that may make people hesitate to start over: fear of losing status. But that may be a misplaced notion. According to a one survey of former executives and journalists who retrained as teachers, more than 60% reported an increase in the sense of self-worth after making the switch. And almost 60% said they had become perceived as more interesting by others.

Also, many of us start preparing too late for what we’ll do after we leave the full-time jobs we’ve had. We often find ourselves retired without a plan or with one lacking the necessary care and guidance.

The notion of an encore career can seem unrealistic to some, too. As Alboher points out, “Most encore-style education offerings and transition programs aren’t accessible to everyone. We need more low- and no-cost opportunities for people to think about and plan for their next steps.”

Freedom and Health Benefits From an Encore Career

If more people launched encore careers, however, they could realize themselves in different ways, with a freedom many didn’t have in their 20s.

In our 60s and beyond, we can give back in a more personal way than before — say,  volunteering for a not-for profit or a campaign. Pursuing a purpose offers many emotional benefits, but also the refreshing opportunity to challenge ourselves and develop new skills.

For instance, Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway became a math and science teacher at 57. In her own words: “What could be more rejuvenating than starting all over again at my age?”

An encore career can also let you pursue passions you’ve long put aside. Ed Metz retired from investment banking in his 50s to pursue his lifelong passion for jazz, playing the piano in the Bob Catz band.

And there can be health benefits switching to an encore career. Kevin Curran, a British former welder and trade unionist, reduced his stress when he became a tree surgeon three days a week. “If I’d stayed full-time as a trade unionist, I’d probably be dead from a heart attack by now. When I was at school, the careers-advice person gave me a test and told me that my ideal occupation was farming or forestry,” he told The Guardian.

Rethinking the Retirement Model

If we take the time to consider our needs, values and desires, putting aside some common prejudices and fears about aging, many of us probably would not choose the long-vacation retirement model.

In that case, maybe my pilot would’ve said: “In a few weeks I will start my new career as…” Then we’d clap and cheer even louder.

By Odile Robotti
Odile Robotti is CEO of Learning Edge/Talent Edge and is an Encore public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.

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