The Age of the Encore Career Arrives (and Not a Moment Too Soon)

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frequent visitors to this blog know that i'm a major fan of the non-profit, civic ventures and its founder marc freedman. the goal of their work is to create a language, mindset, and cultural infrastructure around a new stage of life--the encore career. it's that period after your main income-producing career ends but before complete retirement begins. we all know it's there, but aren't quite sure what to call it. until now.

with the publication of his new book, the big shift: navigating the new stage beyond midlife(public affairs), marc freedman not only wants to name this new phase, but to align public policy, communities, education, employers, and individuals for success. i recently had a chance to talk to marc freedman about his book and the effort to make the "encore career" an official stop in a work+life fit journey.

cali: let's start with the basics. what is an encore career?

marc: encore careers are a form of practical idealism. in the past, when you hit 50 or 60 you thought about how you might volunteer. but now with people working longer, we see a hybrid need for income, renewal, and finding meaning through work.

cali: what are three things you hope that everyone will do or feel after reading your book?

marc: i would like people to:

  1. realize that a new stage of life is emerging between mid-life and retirement and old age.
  2. understand that the population flowing into this period is an undiscovered source of talent for society versus the gloomy vision of walkers outnumbering stroller. people in this new phase have the time and energy to use all of their experience, and we all benefit.
  3. i hope that in creating this new stage these encore career individuals can get the country back on track, and create a sense a future mindedness. we can return our focus to leaving the world better off for future generations. in envision a wave of bumper stickers that say, "i'm living my legacy."

cali: i attended the purpose prize conference this year (an event that recognizes individuals with encore careers who are making a difference in their communities). i was struck by the unbelievable vitality and creativity gathered in one room. i couldn't help but wonder how many of the world's problems would be solved if all of this "encore career" potential was harnessed and released. what do you hope this book accomplishes toward achieving that goal?

marc: the purpose prize a powerful reminder that we need to dispense with the conventional wisdom that entrepreneurship is only for young people. there is a second wave of innovation and creativity.

we've helped to unearth a group of people doing significant, creative work beyond the bounds of traditional limitations. undiscovered talent is out there. the shame is that we systemically write off a very important creative class in society. for every purpose prize winner who managed to forge ahead, many more went off to sideline because they believed what society told them that their proper role is to get out of the action, and that your best work is behind you. all of the genius we've lost because of that arbitrary decision ... again, it's a shame.

in realm of entrepreneurship and innovation, i hope people read the encore career stories of purpose prize winners and realize they aren't exceptions. you don't have to be jimmy carter and bill gates to have an encore career. the purpose prize winners have lived very ordinary lives with as much failure and triumph as anyone. i find that enormously optimistic--the best is yet to come especially for people with a style of creativity and innovation based in trial and error. people at this stage of life have time to accumulate those strands of experience and see where the patterns lead them in their next phase.

we've gone too far with the myth of reinvention, or the american myth that we must constantly re-create our lives. the happiest people are still who they've always been just with more of a confluence, integration of all the parts of their lives. pulling together skills, insights they'd acquired over time. they've seen enough of life to appreciate and bring all of those elements together as a new amalgam. it's more of a coming together than a reinvention. it's not about running a b&b in wine country with no prior experience.

cali: i love how you equate the recognition of the "encore career" with the creation of the life phase called "adolescence" 100 years ago that we take as a given today. what would a world look like where an "encore career" is an accepted and expected period in terms of public policy, education, community, employers and individuals?

marc: these new stages grow out of a problem that turns a negative into a blessing. the same change is lining up now with an aging yet still vital population.

public policy

with regard to public policy, we've traditionally had a deal that encourages people to leave the contributing phase of their lives. many people will still need to leave workforce in their 50/60s because of physical limitations, but many will also need a transition to the next period of contribution versus a conclusion. they need an opportunity to retool and move in new direction. currently, public policy is meager to support making those shifts. like the gi bill, i'd like to see an encore bill that brought together education, internships, and savings vehicles to navigate next chapter. there are piecemeal policies already out there, so it's not a matter of starting from scratch. if we brought all of the pieces together, it could help millions of people.


later in life education has been a source of significant innovation over last few decades. an example of life long learning would be elder hostel. at one point, people over 60 who wanted to learn were seen as odd balls. not so anymore. i think we've done a great job making education acceptable for people at the beginning of their lives and then once they retire. now we need open up education for people in their 50s and 60s that would help them get new skills, make new connections and launch a new contributing phase of life. examples are everywhere, such as the number of people going back to divinity school, although at great expense.

we are starting to see encore career educational options pioneered at community colleges and even harvard business school. alumni associations are stepping in with webinars to retool. a foment is underway that's revealing a new type of education. in the future, people will go to school at the start of their career, but then reallocate some of that time and those resources to when they are 55 years old.

a great example of community-based efforts to support encore careers are the transition networks that are forming across the country mostly by the women who were the leaders in the women's movement. these women recognize that people are being shunted into roles that don't fit their aspiration. they remember the benefit of being able to turn to others to help navigate change. these networks have been spreading like wildfire from professionals to blue collar workers.

i recently went from speaking at a transition network to meeting with a group from the exeter alumni association. the transition network was a group of women and the exeter meeting was a group of men, but they were talking about the same thing. they had the same spirit, were the same age, just a different gender.

there are huge opportunities to support encore careers are through alumni associations. i can't keep track of how many reunion requests we are getting from under grad, and law schools for 30th and 35th year reunions. at that milestone, alumni are looking back and remembering what they used to value and that sense of community when they were in school. they are turning to each other to hear what people are encountering and dreaming about for the next phase. a lot of it happening from more elite schools, but it's hard to imagine that it won't spread.


with employers, i think there's a growing understanding that people will not spend their entire career at the same company. we've done work with hp helping people in their late 40 and early 50s get encore fellowships that focus on the environment and education. and ibm has been a real leader in the transition to teaching and government. it helps the company not only extend its philanthropy but establish itself as great place to work.

another proposal is to create a stealth gap year for when you can't afford to lose your job but you want to explore something different. it allows for a period of exploration at a reasonable financial cost.


for individuals, encore careers are a natural outcome of becoming clearer about how your priorities are shifting. what we value in our teens is different from when we are in our 60s. as people become more attune to the finite nature of life, their priorities change. we are more alert to mortality, which affects decision-making, but at the same time we recognize our remaining longevity and the urgency of how quickly time goes. in other words, there's urgency but also the recognition that you have a good 20/25 years to build a body of work that you would be proud of.

changing the way people plan their retirement is going to be driven by the reality of how to fund a 30-year retirement with no income. in some cases, people will need to retire early because of the physical nature of the work they did. but there will be a shift from planning for a vacation that's decades long to investing in the next phase and doing a better job of transitioning to an encore career.

cali: we both agree on the importance of language to influence how we think about an issue. for example, you talk about "jettisoning working age population." in your opinion, how else does our language and thinking need to change?

marc: there are big distinctions between old age, retirement and an encore career. the book is a plea to accept this new phase on its own terms, as a stand alone destination. 60 is the new 60, not the new 40. the segment of population in this period dwarfs the number of people who are truly old age. and, it's not just about the boomers. in fact, gen x and gen y will be the first groups to truly embrace and benefit from the acceptance of encore career. to change, we need to not only think differently but talk differently in an affirmative language that does away with young versus old, or working retirement which is too half in, half out. we need language that defines encore careers as more than a bridge. it's a destination, which i think more people will clamor to get to as early as possible.

cali: recently, on the cover of the ny times was an article that tells the story of a 61-year-old cabinetmaker in florida who is getting ready to lose his unemployment benefits. he seemed resigned and "out of hope." i couldn't help but think of how an encore career might harness his talent to rebuild schools, community centers etc. in the perfect world of encore careers, how might his situation look different?

marc: that story really underscores the precarious situation many are confronted with today. there are two components coming together--an awful economic period, and we are transitioning to a new map of the way life progresses. people are being thrown into this new world without the help to figure out how to move in a new direction. they are being put in an untenable position so it's not surprising that they are feeling hopeless. until we develop the new societal supports for making encore career transitions, people will be left in this do-it-yourself vice that can seem overwhelming unless they are very wealthy and have a cushion.

when you think about it, over the past decades, we created a powerful agreement around shorter working lives that includes government programs, retirement communities, pensions, and aarp advocacy. this new encore career model is being driven by demographics, economics, and then you throw in terrible economy and we are being forced to look at this phase of work and life differently.

cali: yes, and we will with your terrific new book that is a must read. i will proudly display my "i am living my legacy" sticker on my bumper! thank you, marc. continued success with your campaign to make encore careers a new part of our work+life fit journey.

what do you think? now that this new "encore career" phase has a name, how does it change the way you think about your work+life fit journey?


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