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Encore
A blog about living in and planning for retirement

Why ‘Encore Careers’ Fail Boomers

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Encore career, second act, bridge job – what burnt-out baby boomer doesn’t love the idea of a late-life career switch, new enough to be interesting and lucrative enough to make a full retirement financially possible?

The trouble, research shows, in spite of the media coverage and occasional success stories, those jobs aren’t plentiful or easy to find. New research shows that, while more workers over 50 say they have taken so-called bridge jobs, they tend to fall into two categories. One group is comprised of low-wage workers who can’t afford not to work, and are often moving from one lower-wage job to another. The other tend to be high earners who are already well-situated for retirement, and so can afford the kind of passion pursuit that characterizes the stereotypical bridge job: teaching, non-profit work, opening a bakery. The broad middle – the group of professionals who aren’t able to take big pay cuts, but would love a change of pace – may find it significantly harder. “It’s not always easy to make this kind of job transition,” says Dan Ryan, principal at Ryan Search and Consulting, a staffing firm.

The research, from the Center for Aging and Work at Boston College, reveals that about 60% of retirees in 2008 said they made a career switch after age 50 before they stopped working completely, up from an estimated 40% who did two decades ago.  These career-switchers tend to come from the low and high income ends of the spectrum:  Roughly two out of three low-income and high-income retirees in 2008 said they made a career switch before they stopped working completely, compared to only about half of middle-class retirees.  (Low-income retirees typically made around minimum wage while working, high-income retirees made more than $50 per hour.)  The research suggests that “those at the upper end of the spectrum were working because they wanted to (it was a lifestyle choice), while those at the bottom were doing so because they had to (for the pay and/or the medical coverage),” the researchers write.

If not for the zealous coverage of second act-type transitions and the desires of an entire undersaved generation to believe they can make a career switch on a whim, this trend might be surprising to most boomers. The job market is painfully tight right now, even for people with relevant experience and ambition to offer. A 50-something looking to change careers (read: little experience), but only for a few years, may be a tough sell for an employer overrun with applications. “It’s not very easy right now to voluntarily job hop,” says AARP policy analyst Sara Rix.  “Many employers have certain perceptions about older workers.”  These stereotypes — that older workers aren’t tech savvy, don’t learn quickly, cost too much – don’t always make them an easy sell, especially when they don’t have a ton of experience in a field.

The go-your-own-way fantasy of self-employment, whether it’s opening a bookstore or reinventing oneself as a consultant, isn’t easy either, especially if finances are a concern. The average entrepreneur spends $10,000 to put out a shingle, according to a study by Wells Fargo/Gallup Small Business, but that’s often not enough. SCORE, a nonprofit group devoted to aiding small businesses, recommends startup capital of at least $50,000 for most businesses, saying that “businesses that start with less have higher failure rates.”  You’ll also likely shell out thousands of dollars a month in rent, insurance and supplies, experts say.  And nearly half of all new businesses close within four years, many because they failed, according to data from the Census Bureau’s Business Tracking Series.

To be sure, some people find the success and happiness that advertisements are made of. After 24 years in corporate America, James Czupil, 55, made a career 180 last year. With his wife, a fitness instructor, he bought a Gold’s Gym in Linglestown, Pennsylvania, last year — a move that Czupil says is one of the best decisions they’ve ever made. Already, he says, they are making a tidy income. Career coaches also say that they’ve seen this done right. “It’s not always easy, but it can certainly be done,” says career coach Roy Cohen, author of “The Wall Street Professionals Survival Guide.”

For those who have their hearts set on a new career, experts say there are ways to make it easier. Start by treating it like any career change, says Kerry Hannon, an AARP jobs expert, as opposed to some kind of privileged career twilight. That means volunteering, moonlighting or taking an apprenticeship in the job you’re considering, she says. “It might not be all that you think it is.”  Second, it’s easier to tackle one of these jobs in steps and stages rather than jump in all at once, she says. So, for example, if you’re considering a freelance writing career, take some gigs on the side while you’re still working full-time before you jump in full force. Finally, Hannon recommends anyone considering opening a new business check out Score.org and SBA.gov, both of which have free resources for small business owners.

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    • 301 Moved Permanently Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wished to say that I have truly enjoyed browsing your blog posts. After all I will be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again very soon!

    • I have made a career change since 2004, when I lost my job/career as an academic librarian. I have learned that anyone starting out as a freelance writer today is fighting an uphill battle, because the Internet has changed the ground rules and created expectations that all “content” is free.

      Learn more about the future of professional writing here: http://stressmanagementforwriters.wordpress.com/

    • I too very much appreciate this “reality check.” It resonates with my 7-month experience as an unemployed Boomer. I hold out hope that, once the tsunami of Boomer retirements really hits, and when the economy begins to rebound, demographics suggest that there will be more GOOD jobs for older workers, assuming we keep our skills sharp. There simply won’t be enough younger workers to fill the need.

    • Great article and certainly an issue I encounter with my clients.

      Someone said to me once that depending on one source of income these days is as dangerous as investing in one stock. And for those hit hard by the economy, it may not be possible to retire as early as they thought. So why not at least START early and consider, experiment and prepare for the kind of career that would offer the most in terms of passion and purpose for the rest of your working life – however long that goes?

      It could be challenging for awhile, but when has a transition ever not been challenging? The way work is changing isn’t a blip on the radar screen – as Marc Freedman says, it’s a “stage” not an “age”. It’s a societal change.

      Sue Koch http://corporaterats.com

About Encore

  • Encore examines the changing nature of retirement, from new rules and guidelines for financial security to the shifting identities and priorities of today’s retirees. The blog also explores news that affects retirement, from the Wall Street Journal Digital Network and around the web. Lead bloggers are reporter Catey Hill and senior editor Jeremy Olshan. Other contributors include The Wall Street Journal’s retirement columnists Glenn Ruffenach and Anne Tergesen; the Director for the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, Alicia Munnell; and the Director of Research for Pinnacle Advisory Group, Michael Kitces, CFP.

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