At age 55, Dorothy Mench opted to retire from her 26-year career in equity trading operations at a brokerage firm in Chicago when it reorganized. This fall, she's taking her first class about gerontology at the Center for Creative Aging at Harold Washington College.
"I want to learn more about me, and what I'll encounter in old age," says Mench, who is turning 59 this month and has a master's degree in social work. She's unsure if the class will lead to a new career in gerontology, but is seeking a job that's meaningful, a tenet of the encore career movement among baby boomers.
Trouble is, there's no definitive road map for early retirees' career transition. "If you want to get into social work, you go to college," Mench says. "But if you want to get into the rest of your life, it's a big question mark. How do you do that?"
These days, with the weak employment market, finding a new job or changing careers requires even more time and effort. Here are some steps to help with the transition, from career coaches, Encore.org and retirement experts.
Find positive experiences from your past jobs
Although it's natural to look forward and outward in the world for your future options, the first step, says John E.Nelson, co-author of What Color Is Your Parachute? For Retirement, is to look inward and backward. "The most valuable first step is actually counter-intuitive for most people," he explains. Ask yourself: What are some of the most enjoyable, challenging, and meaningful experiences of your career, Nelson advises. "By reflecting on yourself and your experiences, you're basing your exploration on real data, rather than flights of fancy," he says.
Understand the structure of those good experiences, Nelson explains, so that you can create a "template" for future positive experiences. "You're more likely to spot opportunities that will be fun and engaging and that provide you with a sense of purpose," Nelson says.
Identify your interests, strengths and values
From your work experiences, identify your interests, which can be fleeting and change over time. "What fascinated us in our 20s may not in our 50s," Nelson says.
Also consider your strengths and skills. These can range from your job responsibilities such as negotiating contracts, to the deeper layer of transferable skills such as social and interpersonal skills and being organized. Our character strengths and transferable skills don't really change—they're more like a foundation that is built and developed over time, Nelson says. For example, Mench developed problem-solving skills while working with high-net-worth clients during her career at the brokerage firm, as well as in social work. "I'm trying to use my skills and abilities from an older stage to go through this one," she says.
Our values are deeper than our interests, but they often change too, Nelson says. For example, after marriage and having children, you might discover that your values are different.
A new career might involve a different line of work, serve different values, and entail different job responsibilities. But it may use the same transferable skills and character strengths that you've spent a lifetime building, Nelson says.
"That's why knowing your skills and strengths is so important in creating that 'template' to identify opportunities that are a good fit for you," Nelson explains. "The goal is to find work where the subject interests us, the responsibilities make use of our strengths and skills, and the purpose of the work is aligned with our values."
Determine financial needs
When considering your next career, figure out whether you're going to work for fulfillment and a paycheck, or for fulfillment alone, Nelson says.
If you've been saving and investing consistently over several decades of working, you may be able to look for a job that emphasizes meaning and purpose over money. If that's the case, a volunteer position at an organization in your field of interest or community could lead to an encore paying job.
A volunteer job led Arlene Carter, 59, to her paid position as assistant director of the foundation and public relations at Providence Mount St. Vincent, a nonprofit senior living facility in Seattle. After getting laid off from her human resources job at a real estate firm seven years ago (one of her duties was laying off employees), she had planned to continue in human resources, which seemed a natural path since she earned her SPHR—the highest certification in the HR industry—a few years earlier. Cushioned with a few months severance, she spent time meditating and volunteering, hoping to find a job with meaning.
Then, a woman she met while fund raising in her community suggested she interview for the job at Providence. "I wasn't interested in the job, but I needed experience interviewing, so I went to the interview," Carter recalls. "I fell in love with the place." Even though the salary was lower than her previous one, her office is only a mile from home and has "a very spiritual and healthy work environment—so many intangible benefits." Carter's advice: "Keep yourself open. Don't put a fence around yourself."
Says Nelson: "In the retirement stage of life, don't work for just a paycheck. You can't afford it."
Tap your social network
Your social network has two types of contacts, Nelson says. The first contacts are "strong ties," the people closest to you who you communicate with either frequently or deeply, he explains. But while they provide support—and perhaps advice—they're usually not good sources of new information. They know many of the same people that you do, so you all have similar information about new career options or opportunities.
The second type are "weak ties," the people who aren't as close to you, Nelson says. You don't know them nearly as well and communicate with them less frequently, or less deeply. You and your weak ties don't know that many of the same people. So unlike your strong ties, your weak ties have access to information that you don't. They know additional people that you should get in touch with. They know about opportunities or new developments that you haven't heard about, Nelson explains.
"Get back in touch with some of your weak ties that might have a connection to things you want to explore," advises Nelson. "Find out what you can do for them, and help them in some way—your turn will come later."
You can build new relationships by joining professional associations or other groups related to what you want to explore, Nelson says. The best way to get new information, make connections, and demonstrate your competence is to volunteer for something, explains Nelson, as it will automatically generate new relationships. "The key is to sign up for something that's spot-on relevant and short-term," Nelson says. "After all, it's a test drive for you."
Go back to school
Community colleges offer advanced and accelerated training in various fields, leading older people directly back into the workforce. "It's a fraction of what it could cost at a private or state school," says Jacquelyn A. Mattfeld, director of the new encore program at the Center for Creative Aging at Harold Washington College. Credits and certificates can be earned in class or online with flexible schedules, and courses are tailored around a person's existing education and degrees. "It's really a catalyst for change," Mattfeld says.
A few four-year colleges are also launching encore career programs, such as Harvard University's Advanced Leadership Initiative. Contact local schools to see what's offered.
"We're at the early stages of developing educational opportunities that address this new retirement reality," says Nelson. Most of the existing retirement education is based on prior generations' expectations for a leisure-based retirement, he says, and focus on how to stay "active" mentally, physically and socially. Now, many people are confident that they'll be relatively healthy at an advanced age, but are more worried about having enough income, he says. "We don't need education that just helps people remain active," he says. "We need education that helps them build and maintain their prosperity, health and happiness."
Rather than trying to fill older people up with new knowledge the way we do with first-graders, Nelson says, we need to draw out the considerable knowledge they already have and connect it to their wealth of experience.
Also, invest time in your pursuit. While it's fine to realize an "Aha" moment at a weekend seminar, people are much more likely to develop and follow through with plans when they commit to a learning experience over time, lasting weeks or months, Nelson says.
Another tip: Make sure to update your computer skills. Older workers who aren't familiar with social networking sites Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter "need to learn about them—fast," according to the MetLife Mature Market Institute (MMI) October 2009 study, "Buddy, Can You Spare a Job? The New Realities of the Job Market for Aging Baby Boomers." Warns the MMI study: "Failure to do so not only gives hiring managers another reason to screen out older candidates, but it also supports the argument that 'they' will not fit in the culture."
Be prepared for the realities of the job market
"Older job-seekers who don't recognize that they're viewed differently in the job market are in for a rude awakening," wrote David DeLong, author of the MMI study. Age bias has been found to be a major barrier for older workers seeking jobs, but "being angry does not solve the problem of finding a job," MMI says.
When the job market eventually recovers, demand for highly skilled older technical and scientific talent is likely to pick up again, said Robert Skladany of RetirementJobs.com in the MMI survey. Look for industries that are growing, such as the food industry, transportation, utilities/energy, health care, and accounting, which tend to perform well even in bad times, Skladany said.
Second, find organizations with a workforce culture that respects all workers, advises MMI. Another place to search is small-to-midsize companies, which create the majority of new jobs, MMI notes. Places to start searching include RetirementJobs.com (more than 60 companies pass its "Age Friendly Certification Program," a premium service on the site), as well as AARP's "Best Employers" awards. Retailers and accounting firms typically need seasonal help, MMI says, and may be older-worker friendly.