Boomers' Encore Careers: Opportunity or Loss?

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Boomers, the generation born between 1946 and 1964, are redefining the path from working to retirement. They are planning on working longer than previous generations with many embracing so-called "encore careers" which typically see highly experienced Boomers using their skills in creative or socially-minded roles.

Also See: Want A New Career? Take An Encore

The successes of Boomers who've embraced second careers contrasts with the issues faced by some of their contemporaries. Despite having one of the lowest unemployment rates, currently 4.5%, unemployed people in their 50s and 60s are likely to be out of work for longer than younger Americans.

Also See: 5 Steps to a Successful Second Career

Top tips for people over 50 who are out of work and job hunting often include omitting references which indicate their age from applications as well as embracing LinkedIn. Meanwhile the Internet is full of stories of Boomers like Michael Duffy, from Eden Prairie, Minn., who, after being laid off, went from earning six figures to working at Starbucks for less than $10 per hour.

Also See: Are Our Caveman Roots Preventing Us From Effective Retirement Planning?

So, what's going on? Do Boomers have an unparalleled opportunity to reshape the route to retirement or are they facing spending the last years of their working lives in the shadow of underemployment?

Why Are Boomers Delaying Retirement?

Almost half of the Boomer generation who are still working say that they expect to retire after 65, and a tenth say that they never expect to retire. While this is in line with a steadily increasing retirement age since the '90s, the reasons behind it are complex.

Also See: Think Twice About Social Security for Early Retirement

On the more positive side, some Boomers are refusing the notion of spending their '60s in Florida or sitting on their porch in favor of using their decades of experience to grow new businesses or give back to their communities.

The shadow side is that many Boomers simply can't afford to retire, after seeing their 401(k) plans take a hit during the recession, and being stung by falling property values. Many are still paying off mortgages in their fifties and sixties, an expense that Social Security checks won't be able to cover. Others have seen their savings eaten up by periods of unemployment.

The Unwanted Encore Careers

For Boomers like Duffy, their encore career was an unexpected and unwanted addition to a successful working life. His story is far from unique, with experienced workers in their fifties and sixties being dubbed the "new unemployables" because of the difficulty that so many unemployed boomers have had in re-entering the labor force after losing their jobs.

The story of going from middle-class professional prosperity to working at part-time or temporary jobs that pay little more than the minimum wage is no longer uncommon.

Many boomers suspect that age discrimination is behind this, fueled by the idea that older workers can be more expensive to employ and insure.

Some also point out that older workers can lag behind their younger colleagues when it comes to understanding technological developments, how they present résumés and interview skills.

Whatever the reason, spending their last working decade as a barista, school caretaker or Walmart greeter is hardly what they had hoped for. Even worse, this happened during the time that boomers expected to be able to put money away for retirement.

The Dream Encore Careers

Yet those dream encore careers do exist too. Take the example of Susan and Stephen Ristau, a couple who gave up lucrative yet high-pressure careers in their 50s to follow what really fulfilled them. Despite having a significantly reduced income and a considerably more modest lifestyle, the pair, who now work as a non-profit employee and as a gardener, say that they are much happier.

Changing career in your 50s doesn't necessarily mean taking a cut in living standards though. Yuval Zaliouk went from conductor to entrepreneur at 50 and now sells his brand of cookies throughout the country, including at Trader Joe's.

Even when a lay-off is involved, a positive change can still happen, as Arlene Carter discovered when she went from working in HR for a construction company to working for the Providence Mount St. Vincent Foundation, a non-profit organization.

At their best, these encore careers enable Boomers to pursue personally satisfying careers which also contribute to wider society and offer inspiration to others in similar situations.

Why the Chasm between the Two Types of Experience?

There seems to be a big disparity between the different experiences of second careers. Of course, a change that is made voluntarily when the people involved are in a financial and personal situation which can support a lifestyle shift is probably often going to read more positively than one imposed by a job loss.

Geographical restrictions on opportunity or access to reskilling courses might play a part, as well as the type of skills that someone has developed during their working life. Given many stories, age discrimination seems hard to rule out.

Whatever the causes, it seems that the economy and local communities could have a lot to gain by providing support and pathways for people with decades of experience to keep contributing to the work force.

--Written by Sarah Willis for MainStreet

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