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Future of Work

If You’re Too Old for an Internship, Try a Returnship Instead

More retirees are opting for short-term gigs that keep them engaged and earning money.
relates to If You’re Too Old for an Internship, Try a Returnship Instead
Photographer: Xavier Lalanne-Tauzia for Bloomberg Businessweek

When he’s not hanging out in his Santa Monica home or exploring remote corners of California, Chris Emhardt can be found surveying voting sites and installing the hardware needed to ensure local elections take place smoothly. In 2019 he retired from a four-decade career in similar work at media companies and had planned to simply take it easy and travel. But he’s back on the job and loving it. Two years ago he got a three-week election project, then a two-month gig, then a half-year. “The difference is I’m not trying to build or advance my career,” the 65-year-old says. He loves that he can just do what’s asked of him and head home at the end of the day—though he says he finds so much purpose in bolstering public elections that he regularly logs more than 40 hours a week. “I don’t mind going 110% for a month,” Emhardt says. “But I wouldn’t want to do that as a full-time job.”

Emhardt is emblematic of a wave of sixty- and seventysomethings who are thriving in part-time, contract, and project work. Many are among the 3 million-plus Americans who retired early during the pandemic but are opting for “returnships,” corporate-speak for flexible arrangements for veteran employees. “We’re seeing more evidence that retirees are looking for project-based work to combat boredom and ageism,” says Jody Greenstone Miller, chief executive officer of Business Talent Group, a subsidiary of recruiter Heidrick & Struggles. She says demand for seasoned, interim leaders has more than doubled in the past year.