Many older Australians are finding fulfilment in their encore careers. Photo: Robert Rough
Don Causey was planning his retirement, selling off his profitable sporting newsletters, when his life took a horrific turn.
While on a safari on a long-anticipated trip to Africa, a tree tumbled onto him and broke his back. The process of getting medical transport to take him from a remote village back to Miami was arduous and costly.
Today Causey's back is healed and, at 70, he finds himself in a post-retirement career – consulting for a company that sells travel memberships which include medical evacuation benefits.
It's a profitable part-time gig that Causey believes is an important service to travellers. Plus, he said, "it keeps my mind alive and keeps me connected with a community I care about – just in a different way".
Like Causey, most Americans are crafting their version of meaningful work in the later stages of life. It's a direction that brings balance and an ability to make an impact in a new way.
"More and more people – sometimes by necessity, sometimes by choice – are forgoing traditional retirement and investing [in] 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 non-profit organisation that promotes "second acts".
The concept of an encore career is being buoyed by a convergence of trends: financial realities, redundancies, long life spans and the desire for a more purposeful existence during the ageing 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 fund-raiser, founder of a non-profit organisation, 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, starting 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 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 might already have played a role in curbing the high rate of suicide for older males.
David Cohen, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, had previously discovered a high rate of suicide for males in the 65 to 74 age group, observing that this set was susceptible because of its preoccupation with lost status and a higher risk of apathy and isolation. That high rate has been lower in recent years.
Vicki Cerda, 53, has already begun her transition. After 20 years as an information technology trainer for Florida Power & Light in Miami, her position was eliminated. Today, Cerda splits her time between a seasonal, paid job as a conference planner and voluntary work for a non-profit organisation, the e-learning for Kids Foundation, which provides free educational workshops on the internet for children aged five 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.
Patterns of reinvention vary but often, encore careers start with voluntary gigs that are parlayed into full- or part-time paid work.
One Miami woman I met volunteered to sit on the board of a theatre company because of her love of the arts. In that position, she discovered she was good at fund-raising. Now she's a paid employee, raising money for a non-profit organisation.
A later-in-life job could be completely unrelated to what you were doing for a living previously. It might even evolve from a hobby or interest. In her book, Alboher describes how one senior's love of sailing led him to an encore career with a sailing program for Boy Scouts of America.
Alboher said figuring out your encore career required the personal process of exploring, building a network, getting the necessary training, seeking out an opportunity and brainstorming ways to create a role. You might want to consult a career coach or a friend in the same life stage, or one of the growing number of organisations focused on helping people through an encore transition.
In Miami, for example, the local branch of the national ReServe organisation matches professionals over the age of 55 with part-time paid placements at non-profits and public agencies.
Some people come to their encore venture after working in a field for years and seeing a need. Sixteen years ago, Conchy Bretos, a former secretary for Florida Ageing and Adult Services, founded Mia Senior Living Solutions, a profitable Miami company providing assisted-living services that allow low-income residents to stay in their homes rather than move into nursing homes.
Bretos, 66, launched her idea with a contract from the state of Florida and now manages assisted-living facilities in 23 states. "The whole ageing wave makes it such an inexhaustible market," Bretos said.
As the business has evolved, Bretos has created jobs for other encore career seekers. "They are loyal, committed, dependable, and can do a multitude of tasks."
They benefited too, she said, because they were able to supplement their retirement income. But that's just a perk, she said: "When you're spending your 60s or 70s doing something that's changing people's lives, it can be very rewarding – and not just financially."
How to find an encore career:
+ Talk to organisations such as ReServe http://www.reserveinc.org.
+ Look into encore fellowships or internships through Encore Fellowships Network http://www.encore.org/fellowships.
+ See the section for volunteer positions on LinkedIn.
+ Retool for something new at a nearby community college.
+ Become an encore entrepreneur.
+ Use Glassdoor.com for interview preparation.
The Encore Career Handbook: How to Make A Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life, by Marci Alboher (c) 2013