By the time my sister turned 50, she had been a potter for close to 30 years. She had learned the trade in her twenties and loved working with clay, throwing pots and hand painting them in her backyard studio. But after decades of a trade she loved, she was ready for a change. She went back to college to finish her degree, then looked for a career that involved helping others.
“After 30 years as a potter, physical limitations and spiritual needs brought me to a change in course,” she says. “I decided to put my social strengths to use as an elder caregiver, and I couldn’t be happier.”
Like my sister, many Americans are finding creative ways to keep working as they get older. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that by 2022, nearly a quarter of the nation’s workforce will be 65 and older. Many boomers are staying in their jobs for financial reasons: Longer lives, rising health care costs, few pensions and inadequate savings have forced many to keep working. However, a 2016 survey by Merrill Lynch and Age Wave found that 72 percent of pre-retiree workers over 50 declared that they want to work at least part-time after they retire.
Meanwhile, another workplace trend is emerging: More and more workers over 50 are leaving their primary careers to try something new, according to a study in the journal Work, Aging and Retirement. These so-called “encore careers” offer some older workers a chance to continue earning money while pursuing a passion they were once unable to engage in due to greater responsibilities.
Other reasons for an encore career include greater flexibility, physical limitations and the desire to “give back” to the community, such as volunteering or working for a non-profit.
As a career counselor working in Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area, Tom Ballantyne, M.A., is familiar with encore careers. In fact, he switched careers at age 48. After deciding he wanted to leave executive recruitment to become a career counselor, he set up “informational interviews” with career center directors in his area. A few months later, one of them called him and told him she was leaving her job — and recommended him as her replacement. Since landing the job, he has enjoyed a second, long and gratifying career.
Ballantyne’s tips for kick-starting your encore career:
Interview people in the field you want to work in. Set up informational interviews in which you’re not asking for a job but simply learning more about the field you want to work in. “This is the best way to find out about your interest areas, and you’ll be building a network at the same time,” notes Ballantyne.
Find a career counselor or coach. Older Americans from all walks of life and all sectors are taking the leap to a new job, according to the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER). But making the change can be overwhelming, says Ballantyne. “Many older workers worry that their skills are obsolete and that they don’t know how to network or use social media the right way.” He says that a career coach is a time-tested way to get support throughout the process.
Plan ahead. It may take months or even years for you to lay the groundwork to make the change, so it’s good to start early. Save enough for a financial cushion – the average successful encore career seekers took 11 months to find their new jobs, according to an AIER study about new careers for older workers.
Crunch the numbers. Many people fear they can’t afford a new start, but the AIER study found that most people actually saw their incomes stay the same or increase following a career change. Of course, it’s important to evaluate your retirement plan, savings, expenses and earning potential carefully before taking the leap. (My sister, for example, continues to sell her pottery on the side to supplement her income.)
Find your passion. If you have a passion and an idea of how to fulfill it, you are already ahead of the game. If not, think about what you do in your spare time. “Many people have hobbies that they don’t think about as work, but they may be able to convert it into a business,” says Ballantyne. One of his clients, for example, was able to combine his business and programming background with his passion for ornithology to develop an app for birdwatchers.
Evaluate your skills. Experts say you are more likely to have success if you can apply your existing skills in your new career instead of having to fully retrain. Ballantyne agrees. “Sometimes,” he says, “what you’re really interested in is not necessarily what you’re good at.” If you love photography but feel you don’t have the talent to be a photographer, for example, you might consider a related field such as museum or gallery work.
Fill in the blanks. If your dream job requires a certain degree or certificate, you may need to get additional training. About one in five successful career changers invested in more education or training, according to the AIER study. Check out low-cost courses online or through community colleges.
Network. “This is a critical skill you’ve got to develop,” says Ballantyne. “Some people shrink at the thought of it, but you don’t have to become the life of the party or the stereotypical salesperson to be successful.” The job networking tool LinkedIn is a great place to start. (Not sure how? Check out MoneyGeek.com’s guide to Social Media and Your Job Search.) Asking your friends, relatives and neighbors for ideas may be equally helpful.
Volunteer. Another way to network is to volunteer at different organizations. “Volunteering not only does some social good, but it offers an opportunity to display your skills to someone who may eventually be hiring.” If you are interested in finding flexible volunteer opportunities for seniors in your community, AARP’s Create the Good program is a good place to start.
Is it too risky?
Most people who change careers later in life report they’re happy they did so. The American Institute for Economic Research survey of older workers who attempted a career change found that 82 percent of them were successful. What’s more, 87 percent of people who changed careers reported they were happy after the change. They also report reduced stress and an ability to follow their passion, two likely reasons for their satisfaction.
But, according to Ballantyne, it takes work. “You have to know yourself. As a culture we tend to want a quick fix, a checklist to get us through to a new career. There’s no easy route, but if you’re willing to take a chance and believe in yourself, it’s doable. My own case shows that it’s possible — and it’s worth it.”
Mary Purcell, M.A., covers savings and insurance for MoneyGeek.com.