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Encore careers: A Q&A with Marc Freedman

Freedman3.JPGAs millions of American workers approach the traditional "retirement age," what's ahead for those people and for the larger American economy? Best-selling author and social entrepreneur Marc Freedman shared his thoughts with Living a LearningLife staff ahead of his appearance at this Saturday's "Encore!" Fest.

The founder and CEO of Civic Ventures, and author of Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life, Freedman was described by The New York Times earlier this year as "the voice of aging baby boomers who are eschewing retirement," while The Wall Street Journal stated in 2007: "In the past decade, Mr. Freedman has emerged as a leading voice in discussions nationwide about the changing face of retirement."

LearningLife (LL): For starters, what is an encore career?

Marc Freedman (MF): First, it's a significant body of work, one that could last for 10, 15, or even 20 years. It takes place in the second half of life, after the end of a midlife career. Ideally, it involves some type of pay or benefits. And at its core, it's about the search for new meaning and a deep desire to contribute to the greater good. Encore careers combine continued income, personal meaning, and social impact.

LL: Can you give us an example of an encore career transition, perhaps from your book?

MF: Ed Speedling was the first person in his family to graduate from college. He then went on to get a Ph.D. and had a midlife career he was very proud of in academic health care.

But there was an ache in him that came out of an experience he had while still in college. He was coming up from a subway station in New York and encountered a homeless woman. He gave her a dollar, but felt that he just hadn't done enough. Forty years later, in his late fifties, Speedling decided to convert longing into action.

One connection led to another and Speedling was offered a job at a local shelter in Philadelphia working one-on-one with the homeless. In time, he used that experience and the knowledge he gained to move to a more innovative organization tackling the causes of homelessness.

LL: Obviously, switching to an encore career is a big life decision. What would you say to a person who is considering making the move? What are the major considerations they should take into account?

MF: For those finishing a midlife career, it may be important to take a breather, if possible, to rest, think, and gather energy for the next phase of life and work. During this time, it's useful to come up with a realistic, and perhaps interim, objective such as becoming a substitute teacher or taking a short-term fellowship or internship with a local nonprofit. Testing the waters with these type of experiences can help clarify future encore career plans.

It's also important to consider whether you want or need some kind of educational experience or retraining, perhaps at your local community college, to help bridge the gap from your midlife career to your encore career. As in any job search, it makes sense to talk to as many people as you can. Consider it a research project: Who's happiest? What's working for them? What can you learn from their mistakes?

Another key factor is going where the jobs are. Nearly every state needs more math and science teachers, as well as registered nurses working in hospitals. Nonprofits and the federal government are reporting talent gaps for senior managers and other "mission-critical" positions that could be filled with older adults armed with marketing, management, financial services, and other skills. Green jobs and careers caring for an aging population also tap a societal need.

This process is anything but linear. People often find their perfect encore career by just pursuing what interests them or by just doing what they have to do--the volunteer board member who steps into the job as interim executive director, or the daughter who nurses her mother at the end of life and then decides to become a licensed caregiver to help others in this stage of life. Finally, this process takes time. Be patient.

LL: How many people have already made the switch to an encore career?

MF: Baby boomers will soon make up a quarter of the U.S. population. About three-quarters of boomers say they plan to work after "retirement." Most will not be able to afford to stop working entirely. So what kind of work will people in the second half of life do?

A 2008 national survey by the MetLife Foundation and Civic Ventures found that an estimated 6 to 9.5 percent of Americans ages 44 to 70 are already working in encore careers. Fully half of those surveyed said they want encore careers that offer not only continued income, but also the promise of more meaning--and the chance to do work that means something beyond themselves. Advocating for an issue they care about, working with youth, and jobs protecting the environment and in education topped the list of job areas.

LL: The economy is on everyone's mind nowadays. How does the current state of the economy change or alter the encore career landscape?

MF: We know that longer working lives are going to be a necessity for millions of individuals, especially given the current economic downturn. And the question of how to make a virtue of that necessity--how to find work that's not just another 10 years at the grindstone, but work that people can genuinely look forward to and be proud of--isn't just a financial necessity but a fundamental aspiration. It also presents a potential windfall of talent that could be put to work solving society's most pressing social problems. If just 5 percent of boomers launch 10-year encore careers, that would amount to almost 40 million human-years of talent applied to solving problems in our communities and the world--from cleaning up the environment to educating our youth, improving health care to reducing poverty.

Marc Freedman will be appearing in this Saturday's event, Encore! A LearningLife Fest. The Fest will be held from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. at the Continuing Education and Conference Center on the U of M St. Paul campus.

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