Encore Careers: Why an Aging Population Is a Resource, Not a Problem

At one time, many people in the Western world anticipated retiring in their 50s or 60s. Now, they are embarking on new careers at the very time that they might have previously been expected to begin a life of leisure. Increased longevity and a drive to keep contributing to society have led to what are often referred to as “encore careers” — new endeavors that are often very different from a person’s past experience.

Marci Alboher is the author of The Encore Career Handbook: How to Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life. She is also vice president of Encore.org, a nonprofit that helps millions of people pursue second acts for the greater good. This is not just about reinventing yourself, she says: “You have to be a part of changing the world for future generations.” Alboher spoke to Stewart Friedman, Wharton practice professor of management and director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, about second and even third acts.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Stewart Friedman: Let’s start with some basic definitions. What is an encore career, and what is Encore.org?

Marci Alboher: Good place to start. An encore career is a second or third act that combines personal meaning with social impact and continued income. Continued income is an important part of that definition because, for some people, the continued income is optional. If you’ve made enough money to take care of yourself for the rest of your life, your encore career may not be a paid piece of work. But for the majority, it is.

Encore.org is a national nonprofit that’s been in this game close to a decade now. It is trying to pave the way for the growing number of people who want to have encore careers, who want to plan — not for a leisure-based retirement — but for a later stage of work that has some positive impact on the world.

We do that through a variety of programs. The most famous one is the Purpose Prize. We give out $100,000 prizes to social entrepreneurs over the age of 60. The idea is to change what you think about innovating and aging by elevating these role models.

Friedman: Can you give us a recent example of a Purpose Prize winner, and why they earned it?

Alboher: We’re sitting here in Philadelphia, so someone from Philadelphia comes to mind. Barbara Allen was a museum administrator who had taken time off to raise her kids. She was always in design and the arts. She got involved in a project where she, along with her son, was asked to help decorate the Philadelphia school district headquarters building. They were asked to bring the images of children into this building so that people would have a sense of who they were serving. They came up with this idea of getting children’s art that was created in schools and blowing that up to decorate the hallways.

The project was so successful that an idea was born. Allen was concerned about the budget cuts for arts supplies and art programming in public schools in Philadelphia. So they … created what she calls “student philanthropists.” The students make art and they blow these pieces up, like she had done for that one project with her son. Corporations buy the art from the students and decorate their walls, and all the money goes to replenishing art budgets in the schools. It’s a sustainable business model. The corporations are funding this venture. It’s called Fresh Artists. It’s replicable; people all over the country are looking at it.

Friedman: Let’s step back and look at the big picture. Why is there so much interest in encore careers now?

Alboher: There are a few things that have converged at this time. Demography is a big part of it. We’ve heard about the gray tsunami — the aging wave of baby boomers coming down the pipe. Ten thousand baby boomers are turning 65 every day, and it’s going to be like that for the next 20 years or so. By 2050, we’re going to have more people over 65 than under 30. This is a very big demographic shift. At the same time, we have a longevity shift. It’s not so much that we’re living longer; we are living longer technically by a few years. But the period of life that’s extended — 50s to 70s — are years of vitality and engagement that used to be years that weren’t that useful to people.

This work was pioneered by Marc Freedman [founder and CEO of Encore.org]. His idea was we should look at this aging population as a resource rather than a problem, as a legion of problem solvers — a cadre, an army. What we’re trying to do is figure out how to take this idea and turn it into reality and mobilize all the people who want to do this encore work.

Friedman: Is this only about people who are moving from the private sector to the nonprofit sector?

Alboher: No, it’s not just about people who are sector switchers. There is something that happens to you. After you’ve been doing any kind of work for 20 or 30 years, you get this need to shake it up a little. Many people figure out how to shake it up within the confines of what they do. Maybe you’ve been in a classroom — a public school teacher — for 30 years. You are ready to get off your feet. But you are not done with education. That’s where we see people who go into education policy reform. We see it happening across the board, people wanting to have an impact, but in a new way.

Friedman: How did you get into this?

Alboher: I’m a little pre-encore; I’m slightly younger than the people we look at. But I’m always thinking about the future, so I’ve got self-interest here. I also came at this as a journalist. I had a few career reinventions myself. In my first career, I was a corporate lawyer. After about nine years, I realized I was having a really bad fit with my organization. I was having a values clash with the work I was doing. I felt I was representing companies that I didn’t believe in and practices that I couldn’t support.

I quit my law job and tried to become a writer, which was what I originally wanted to do. I’d been an English major when I went to [the University of Pennsylvania]; I could never figure out how to turn that into paid work. I hadn’t discovered journalism in those days. I took some classes at community centers. I started publishing pieces. I got a piece in The New York Times, and I said, “Wow, I’ve had more professional satisfaction out of this one article than anything I’ve done in the nine years previously.” I spent a couple of years trying to turn that early promise into a sustainable career. It took a long time, and it wasn’t easy. I had to find new mentors, and I had to learn from a bunch of 20-year-olds who were way ahead of me in this game.

Friedman: That’s probably a major issue for a lot of encore switchers.

Alboher: Exactly. I was seeing the very things I now report on. You have to find mentors who are younger than you, who understand how the world you want to break into works.

Friedman: I’m sure a lot of people resist that sort of mentoring.

Alboher: Right. But the best way to stay in the game and stay relevant is to figure out how to have intergenerational relationships in the workplace. How can young people learn from older people? How can older people learn from younger people? So, for the next 10 years, I wrote, mostly for The New York Times, but for many other publications as well, about workplace trends and the changing face of work. In the course of that work, I started to learn about what was happening at Encore.org, which used to be called Civic Ventures.

I reviewed Marc Freedman’s two books. He wrote a book called Encore, which really put this big idea out in the world. I covered that book for The New York Times, and I got to know him. He became one of my trusted sources, a guy I went to whenever I wrote about social entrepreneurship, baby boomers, demographic trends and social purpose work. I wrote so many pieces on this that it became a mini beat for me. This encore stuff really intrigued me. In the wake of all that, I had a column in the Times called “Shifting Careers.” In 2008, in the midst of the recession and the media implosion, the Times cancelled my column and blog. Here I was writing about the recession and how it’s impacting people and suddenly I had to think about my own next steps.

I wasn’t sure my skills were as good as those of the 20-year-olds coming into the workplace. I wasn’t sure that the media was going to be the best place for me to have an impact. I wrote a piece about this for my blog. I wrote the parting column on what it’s like to be a workplace writer who’s out of work.

Friedman: I remember that. It was very powerful.

Alboher: It got a lot of response. One of the first people who responded was Freedman. He wrote a note: “I’m really interested in talking to you about your future plans.” We started one of those professional courtships that went on for a long time. Eventually, Mark and I decided that I should move over to Encore.org and help people better understand this idea, to take the steps from thinking of it as a good idea for society to figuring out to make this happen for themselves. How do we create a career that’s going to sustain us for 50 years and not for 30 years, like we used to have?

Friedman: I’m sure a lot of our readers and viewers are interested in some of the practical aspects of this. For example, what do you tell someone who says, “I’m just too old to do this. I’ve already done a lot; I’m tired; I don’t have the energy. I’d like to do something new, but can I really retool?” What’s the advice you have for people who have that mindset?

Alboher: There’s this Zen concept of “beginner’s mind.” You learn something new with the eyes of a beginner, and it’s actually a pretty exciting thing. I think we all have the capacity to continue learning. If you become a life-long learner, you will keep that skill from atrophying. It’s a pretty important part of aging: to learn how to learn new things and to exercise that muscle often. I was at my 25th reunion and I think our class was dealing with this. We all see 50 ahead of us. We’re thinking, “There’s 25 years of more work I can do. I could have a career that is as long as what I’ve been doing for the past 20 or 30 years.”

Friedman: Perhaps longer.

Alboher: Perhaps longer. I found people all over my class who were going back to school, who were embarking on Master’s programs, who were going back for a certificate somewhere, for an online program. I met a woman who had stayed home for 20 years raising her kids, who got interested in what we’re seeing climate-wise. She’s going back to school to learn about coastal erosion, so she can work in urban planning to help prevent some of the disasters that we’re going to be facing in the coming years. It is a field she never even knew existed 25 years ago.

Friedman: What role do universities play in this? One of the things we’re doing here at Wharton is investing in life-long learning in a significant way. How does that play into the encore movement?

Alboher: Universities are going to be a huge part of this. We’ve done work with community colleges up through Wharton and Harvard Business School. We believe that higher education is the key to helping people through this because people are going to go to places in their community, they’re going to go to their alma mater and they’re going to go to the name brand in the field. It’s a great market opportunity for higher education. How do you serve both your alumni through their own life course, and how do you serve the greater population who want to learn about the areas in which you have the name brand programs?

I believe that in the way executive education is now so standard, encore education will be just as standard. You’re going to look at all the schools that have the programs for what you want to do. But you’re going to want to make sure that they know how to serve somebody of your generation. Are they going to help you with the tech support you might need if you haven’t been in the classroom for 20 years? Are they going to be as flexible as you want to be? Executive education was built around serving the corporate employee who had particular needs. The encore market may have some of those needs in common, but they’re going to have a different set of needs. I think the smartest players in higher education are going to recognize what those needs are [and] make sure they deliver the product in a way that the encore population is going to want to learn.

Friedman: What about age discrimination? Does that still exist in the workplace and in society? How does that play into the encore movement?

Alboher: Age discrimination does exist. We have these stereotypes — “The young are more tech savvy” — that we parrot because we think this is the way the world works.

Education is interesting because we have respect for age and experience and wisdom which doesn’t exist in some other fields. Education is a hot encore field. Another hot encore field that values age and experience is healthcare.

Yes, ageism exists. The best way to combat it is to find sectors where age is appreciated, wisdom is welcome and experience is valued. But we have also to dispel the stereotypes. I was reading something by [Wharton management professor] Peter Cappelli in Knowledge@Wharton about combating the myths we have. There’s this myth that you hire an older worker and he’s not going to stay. The data shows that older workers dig in; they’re used to finding a job and staying there and being committed. There’s another myth that they’re more expensive because of healthcare. But for a lot of older workers, their kids are off their healthcare plans. They can be less expensive. When we’re in a position to hire, we have to think about what it means to have an intergenerational team as a new kind of diversity, building teams that have the enthusiasm of youth and the experience that age can bring.

Friedman: What’s the most important thing you want to convey to people who are interested in pursuing an encore career, but don’t know how to get started?

Alboher: Getting started is a two-part process. There’s something you have to do in your head first. You have to figure out where you are in your life and what you are looking for. What could you be doing to add more social impact to where you are right now? If you’re planning for the future, if you are a few years away from the time to make a shift, what could you do now to lay a foundation? Could you be exploring what interests you? Could you be taking some courses on the side? Could you be connecting with other people who are interested in this idea?

People must also recognize that this just isn’t about you and your own reinvention. You have to be a part of changing the world for future generations. The pioneers who are figuring out how to have a big impact in the later years of their career are going to be helping to create a whole new kind of paradigm for what work looks like, the way the pioneers of the women’s movement did in the 1960s. I think this is a really interesting and exciting time to be a part of.

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