Are you feeling the midlife urge to make your mark or begin something new? In “The Encore Career Handbook,” Marci Alboher helps you channel that urge to effect real change in the direction of your career and your life. Here’s an excerpt.
It’s Time for Your Encore
In the past one hundred years, the average life span in the United States has expanded from forty-seven to seventy-eight years. By any account, longer lives should be a cause for celebration. But all this extra time can also create anxiety.
Like Betty Friedan’s housewife in The Feminine Mystique, millions of people are grappling, alone, with a nameless problem shared by millions of others. What do we do with these additional years? How do we make use of this extra time while we are still vital and engaged? And how do we pay for all that extra time? We wonder how to leave a legacy, contribute, and make money — and, if we’re lucky, find our bliss along the way.
You probably picked up this book because you’re facing a similar question. You’ve hit a wall, lost a job, or are just wondering “Is this all there is?” Maybe your retirement plan has been shattered. Maybe the word “retirement” doesn’t even resonate with you. You may be forty and thinking about planning for another thirty years of work, or fifty-five and thinking of a ten or fifteen-year third act, or seventy and wondering how to find a part-time job that would add money and meaning to your life.
The good news is that you still have time: Time to follow, or discover, your passion. Time to do something that matters. Time to help yourself — and others, too. We all have more time to make the most of our lives.
There’s a new trend afoot. Growing numbers of baby boomers are rewriting the narrative of twenty-first-century midlife by crafting a new stage of work: an encore career for the greater good. These pioneers have realized that with midlife comes a newfound capacity to tap into their accumulated experience and wisdom to accomplish new things, often in ways they were unable to do earlier in their lives.
The desire to have a positive impact in the world seems to grow stronger with age, as if it were programmed into our midlife DNA. It’s not hard to figure out why. By this time in life, people have identified plenty of things that need fixing, and they’ve also figured out that helping others is one of the easiest ways to get a happiness boost. And although for many it may finally be time to play the flute or open an artisanal bakery, there is also a compelling urge at midlife to make a mark in a way that leaves things a little better for future generations. (Psychologist Eric Erickson called this kind of thinking “generativity.”) With age often comes the anticipation of regret (what if I never . . .), as well as a sense of urgency (if not now, when?) and a sense of responsibility (if not me, who?). Some hit midlife and reconnect with the idealism of youth, when everything felt possible.
Interestingly, this urge to make the world a better place seems to kick in for those who never thought of themselves as do-gooders as well as those who have dedicated their entire lives to so-called social purpose work. The former find ways to get started; the latter usually decide it’s time to have impact in a whole new way.
What’s more, there’s evidence that shows we may be hardwired for big accomplishments at midlife. We all know that certain things inevitably decline with age—we can’t grab the name of that actor in that movie or we can’t remember if we fed the cat; and restaurants become a minefield, with those menus you can’t read (in dim light) and tablemates you can’t hear (amid the ambient noise). But the latest neuroscience research shows that some things improve as we pack on the years. We become more empathic, we get better at synthesizing ideas, making connections between disparate ideas, and solving complex problems. We actually grow smarter in some ways—you know, that whole wisdom thing.
These ideas have been confirmed in study after study, and in the narratives of people’s lives.
Mark Walton, a CNN-news-anchor-turned leadership-coach, studied the phenomenon of later-life achievement for his book, Boundless Potential, and concluded that people who remain engaged and creative into their seventies, eighties, and beyond are not only common, but they may represent what later life is supposed to look like. “You may forget where you put the keys, but you may be able to settle a major labor dispute,” Walton told me, adding, “What we think of as those ‘senior moments’ are very normal events that most likely mean we were thinking about something else.” That may explain why the average age in Congress is hovering around sixty—and why world leaders continue to wield power or great artists often hit their prime well past the years typically considered to be most productive.
There is also a very practical need driving this activity: These bonus years don’t come with a prepaid gift card. With the recession’s impact on retirement savings and the decline of pensions, the encore career offers a new model for providing continued income in your later years.
It’s this search for purpose, passion, and a paycheck that coalesces into an encore career—continued work that combines personal meaning with social purpose. The grandmother who embarks on law school at fifty, sparked by an injustice she sees in her community. The advertising director who retires to become an art teacher, working another fifteen years and tapping into reservoirs of creativity she remembers from her own school years. The unemployed engineer who travels abroad, sees a problem, and returns home with an idea for a solution—and starts a thriving business.
Contrary to the ubiquitous magazine profile of the lawyer-turned-teacher, moving into new kinds of work is not quick or easy. Usually, the transition is a slow metamorphosis involving baby steps, detours, persistence, creativity, and a do-it-yourself spirit. Some find their encores through a subtle tweaking of what came before, but many find the need or desire for a wholesale reinvention. This is complicated at any age, and all the more so when your friends and family worry that you’ve lost your mind, and when the workplace seems dominated by young people not exactly warm to working alongside people who look like their parents.
As more people begin their encores and more organizations step up to provide assistance and pathways, these shifts are getting a little easier. Local programs and encore-focused career coaches are cropping up in cities across the country to help people through this transition. Community colleges are offering courses specifically designed for people retraining for encore careers in fields like health care, green jobs, social services, and teaching. Encore fellowships now offer pathways for corporate managers who want to retrain for jobs in nonprofits. And organizations like the Transition Network, ReServe, and Coming of Age are rapidly expanding into new cities as hubs for people who want a supportive and helpful community as they build their encores.
This support is important—necessary even—because reinvention can be hard. And scary. I’ve talked to people who haven’t written a résumé in thirty years, and for whom the thought of posting a profile, let alone a photo, on LinkedIn is daunting, self-promotional, and just plain weird. Researching academic programs and looking for internships when a child or grandchild is doing the same can feel awkward, maybe even ridiculous. And what about the fear of being greeted for an interview by someone who doesn’t look old enough to have a job? What’s been missing (until now) is a road map to take you through all the stages of your encore journey, from your daydreams through all the challenges—and triumphs—you’ll face along the way, to the first day of your new adventure.
Reprinted from The Encore Career Handbook by Marci Alboher by arrangement with Workman Publishing. Copyright © 2012 by Marci Alboher.