I recently had the honor of delivering a commencement speech, but this wasn’t your typical college graduation. The students were 23 people in their 50s. They’d just completed Encore! Hartford, a University of Connecticut workforce development program designed to help seasoned corporate professionals transition into encore careers through managerial positions in the nonprofit sector.
Here are some of the things I said to them; maybe they’ll help inspire you to get your own encore career under way:
Before I get into offering advice for the Encore! Hartford graduates, I’ve got to quickly point out how wonderful it is to look out into this audience and see all of you graduates sitting alongside your proud children! It’s a nice twist on the usual graduation, where parents beam as they watch their children accept their diplomas.
(MORE: Where to Get Help Launching Your Encore Career)
I want to briefly share a little bit about my own story and why Encore! Hartford is so near to my heart.
I first heard about encore careers in 2007. I was a workplace columnist for The New York Times and wrote a piece about the book Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life by Marc Freedman. The book introduced me to a big new idea: that many people hitting midlife are seized with the urge to make a difference in the world and are going through some kind of reinvention to do it.
My Twisting Career
This issue hit me professionally and personally. I had lived through a big career change myself, having abandoned corporate law to become a journalist in my 30s because I wanted more purpose in my life.
In 2008, I faced yet another career upheaval, only this time it wasn’t my choice. The New York Times abruptly canceled my Shifting Careers column and blog; they were extremely popular, but I was an expensive freelancer and the media industry was trying to figure out its own survival.
I was blindsided. After all, I was tweeting. I was on the cutting edge. I was also devastated and embarrassed. Remember, I was a workplace expert who was now out of a job.
(MORE: Encore Careers for the Rest of Us)
Eventually I networked my way back to Marc Freedman and, in time, joined the staff of Encore.org. It’s the small nonprofit he founded that’s spearheading the idea of encore careers as a solution to some of the nation’s greatest social problems.
I now spend my days working on ways to help people move into encore careers and to shine the spotlight on innovative programs like Encore! Hartford.
In the past four years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of people who have embarked on this journey, which culminated in my book, The Encore Career Handbook.
One of the people I profiled is RozeLyn Beck, an Encore! Hartford alum from the class of 2011, who I was delighted to meet today. RozeLyn found her way to Encore! Hartford after her position at The Hartford Insurance Co. was eliminated in 2009. She decided to see if she could turn a lifetime of volunteering on the side into a paid position in the nonprofit world, even though it would mean a pay cut. RozeLyn is now director of development and marketing at the YWCA of Hartford and a reminder to all of us about the potential that encore careers represent.
Some Advice for Young People Applies to Older Ones
As I was thinking about what to say today, I scoured Google and YouTube for commencement speeches aimed at young college graduates. I watched and read many powerful talks – Oprah at Harvard, Arianna Huffington at Smith College, Stephen Colbert at the University of Virginia and Meryl Streep’s classic 2010 talk at Barnard.
I was trying to figure out whether the advice for 20-year-olds getting ready to join the real world would hold up for a group of 50-year-old pioneers.
Actually, I found that many of the timeless nuggets apply just as much to folks embarking on an encore career as to those graduating from college. For example:
You literally are commencing. You may not yet have discovered the work you were meant to do, but you have the goods to get there.
Failure is a necessary stop on the way to where you’re meant to go. Or as Oprah recently said at Harvard, “Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”
You have a network. The most important asset you have is the relationships in this room.
(MORE: Career Shift: My Nonprofit Experience as an Encore Fellow)
What Gets Better With Age
But there are also some things I can say to this crowd that I wouldn’t if I was addressing a group of twentysomethings. Namely, there are a lot of attributes that actually get better with age:
Empathy and emotional stability. With age comes a greater ability to listen and hear the concerns of others. That’s why people in midlife make wonderful coaches, social workers, counselors, mentors and advisers. I’ve stopped counting the number of people who’ve told me they’d never want to see a therapist under 40!
Wisdom. How many times have you wished that you knew then what you know now? Truth is, wisdom only arrives with accumulated years. Go out and use it!
And leadership. It’s no accident that heads of state and the hallways of Congress are filled with people over 60. As we age, our ability to lead and to synthesize ideas only gets stronger.
The Right Mindset for an Encore Career
Even with all of these attributes, you’ll need to adopt the right mindset. So …
Give yourself permission to get lost. You still have time to experiment and to take a few detours.
Embrace lifelong learning. Education used to be for the young. But in the new world order, we need to repeatedly fill the tank.
If you’re going to work another 20 years, know that the best investment you can make is in your own skills and training – just like you’ve done in this program.
Be aware of ageism, but don’t fixate on it. Look for fields and work environments where experience is valued.
Become a master at intergenerational mentoring. Find the upside to working with – and for – younger people. Take every opportunity to defy stereotypes about aging by embracing new technology and new ways of working.
There is no age limit on changing the world. Only when more people move into encore careers will stereotypes of older workers fade.
Remember that meaningful work isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Ask any teacher, activist or nonprofit executive director — doing good work doesn’t always feel good. You will likely still run into your fair share of difficult colleagues, bureaucracies and bad days. I see a lot of nodding heads out there among those who already work in the nonprofit sector!
But by now, you probably know that being happy every minute isn’t the end goal.
Encore! Hartford graduates, you are trailblazers, reinventing yourselves to make a difference in your communities during the extended working lives we are all lucky enough to enjoy. Just be prepared for the fact that it won’t be easy.
We All Need to Support Encore Careerists
And now a few words for the other people in the audience:
As the Encore! Hartford graduates are working on their transitions, you need to do what you can to support them.
Help them find mentors and increase their network – just as you’d help a young person get started on her path. If you’re in a position to hire, recognize the unique attributes that experience can bring to your team.
Encore careers have the potential to be a social movement that changes the way we look at the course of life. But for this to happen, we need to ensure that what’s happening here in Hartford plays out in countless cities around the country.
So Encore! Hartford graduates and alumni, be sure to identify with the growing encore career movement. When people over 50 ask about what you’re doing, tell them you are working on your encore career and ask them if they are thinking about their own.
If you're here as a guest, think about what an encore career might mean for you and for others you know.
Boomers may be the first to cross this threshold into a new stage of life, but they won’t be the last. Their children will one day hit midlife and realize that they, too, have the potential for another 20-plus years of good work. By that time, I predict, there will be plenty of encore commencement talks floating around YouTube.
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