In his intriguing book Encore, Marc Friedman paints a vivid picture of the working life that could replace retirement for millions of Baby Boomers. With help from enlightened public policy, he suggests, Boomers could function as the backbone of education, nonprofit and other sectors essential to national well-being.
Friedman says that there is a growing wave of retirees who are living out a compelling vision of work in the second half of life. In their encore careers, these individuals find themselves “at the intersection of continued income, new meaning, and significant contribution to the greater good.”
Among other benefits, new work options after the traditional retirement age “could provide a second chance at upward mobility for individuals from the less affluent end of the socioeconomic spectrum,” Friedman says.
I agree with Friedman that changes in tax, Social Security, labor and other laws could ease the way toward a future in which Americans will have rewarding work options into and well beyond our 70s. But there are plenty of indicators that, even without these policy changes, the career picture is increasingly bright for older Americans:
- Lifelong learning is opening new doors. Around the world, universities are recruiting older students, and in the U.S. adults over 55 are going back to school in growing numbers. A study on lifelong learning by the American Council on Education says that adults aged 50 and older already represent 3.8% of students enrolled in for-credit courses at colleges and universities (PDF). And a growing number of organizations are creating mentor and other programs aimed at retooling retirees for rewarding new jobs.
- Jobs will be there. With unemployment still close to 10% it may be hard to believe, but we’re heading toward another labor shortage. Encore.org has posted a study predicting that by 2018 there will be more jobs than people to take them (PDF). For many sectors, the next generation of workers just won’t be able to fill the holes in the labor force. Employers will have an incentive to recruit older workers by offering new kinds of training and schedule flexibility. Flextime and part-time schedules, job-sharing, and continued expansion of outsourcing will translate into new job opportunities for seniors.
- It gets easier to follow your passion. We continue to evolve as we mature, and after 50 we may find it easier to create the career we really want. Psychologist Carl Jung coined the term “individuation” to describe the process by which you integrate all aspects of your personality to become a fuller, richer person later in life. He said that in youth we develop a social façade that helps us to get along well at school and work, but it can limit us as we continue to develop. In mid-life we may abandon some of the restrictions of our socialized persona, and find ways to pursue the things that really matter. Our new sense of self can help us see an entirely different set of career options.
- Many examples illustrate the trend. Financial journalist Kerry Hannon writes about Americans between the ages of 44 and 70 who have launched “second act” careers. She has interviewed dozens of the estimated 8.4 million Americans who have moved from the traditional job track to an entirely new career that combines income with personal meaning and social impact. In her book “What's Next” Hannon offers fascinating portraits of 16 people who have changed career paths later in life.