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Baby Boomers Reinvent Themselves in Today's Workplace

Baby Boomers, Americans born between 1946 and 1964, make up an estimated 40 percent of the nation’s workforce. The 78.2 million Boomers were born into post-WWII families where the working parent typically worked for one company their entire life, rising through the ranks to seniority, and retiring at age 65. Today, however, even Boomers are expected to make at least three distinct career shifts, transitioning from job sector to job sector and chasing new skills demanded by ever-advancing technology.

The Boomer Edge
Whether they like it or nor, career makeovers are the norm and not the exception for Boomers. While they may not change jobs every two years like their much younger co-workers, Boomers may spend two to six years determining the direction they have to take to stay active in the job market. To feel secure in today’s changing marketplace, Baby Boomers should seek out the best training they can find before they transition into their new careers. Present realities do not necessarily mean Boomers have to jettison their previous learning and job experience to succeed, however. In fact, building on their expertise can give them the edge when they enter a new career phase.

Career coaches advise Boomers that when they complete their necessary upgraded training, they still have to present themselves to employers in innovative ways, by modifying resumes to downplay their lengthy employment records and specifying skills, assets, and achievements over longevity. In short, Boomers should prefer the functional over the traditional resume.

Some Boomers Go It Alone
An alternative to falling back and punting the old career entirely is transforming from your old company-employee role to the sole proprietor of a new business–consulting, for example. No matter the avenue, Boomers will have to adjust to new economic realities that may force this age group to work later into their senior years than their parents’ generation had to. After all, the Social Security retirement age is creeping up from the standard 65 to 67 and beyond.

Job coach Ian Christie tells Boomers, “Don’t dwell on the past. Honor where you’ve been, lessons learned, experiences gained.” And then move on.

Boomers Head Back to School
The American Association for Retired People (AARP) predicts that by 2012 Boomers will still make up nearly 20 percent of the total workforce. If they’re going to remain competitive, however, they need to upgrade their skills. An AARP survey found that 88 percent of workers between 44 and 74 years old said “the opportunity to learn something new” was critical when they thought about their ideal job.

The Consortium for Higher Education reports that jobs opening in this decade “will require much higher math, language, and reasoning capabilities” than in previous generations. Jobs that require a bachelor’s degree as the minimum education level will grow twice as fast as the average for all occupations. The same technology that has extended the life expectancies of Boomers will tighten their requirements for remaining in the job market.

Not surprisingly, Boomers are heading back to school to upgrade their credentials, to learn skills that will help them change career groups, or to complete professional degrees that can launch them into management. Career advisers recommend that Boomers keep their present jobs and find ways to integrate learning without having to leave the workforce. Online degree programs, which are self-paced, often provide just the means. And many companies will pay for advanced training for key employees. Online or part-time learning can also provide transition paths for empty nester Boomer moms who want to return to the workplace.

Even if they must take a hiatus from active employment to pursue new training, Boomers need not necessarily fear that time off will be detrimental. Consider the example of Brenda Barnes who, at age 50, became CEO of Sara Lee Corporation 2004–following a six-year hiatus from working in the corporate world.

Easing the Transitions
The Wall Street Journal recommends that Boomers remain open minded about making transitions. First, Boomers shouldn’t resist the idea of moving their skill sets and business acumen to a new field or completely different industry. Combining existing job skills with newly learned technologies or methodologies through education can prove a winner. Or, Boomers can simply moonlight in a second field (say consulting, or non-profit work) until they can make a clean break from current jobs.

As Boomers are forced several times over to re-invent themselves professionally, they might consider taking routes their parents never considered. That means leaving the corporate world entirely. Avenues include building a home-based business that uses new technology, buying stand-alone franchises, or becoming entrepreneurs. Some will wend their ways into successful mentoring-tutoring-consulting businesses where they return to their former employers as free-lancers or part-time contractors. Top-level consulting gigs can pay Boomers more than their previous salaries for doing the same work while providing increased flexibility.

Non-profits also need Boomer skills, with approximately 10 percent of all U.S. jobs today in that sector. Small companies often tend to be more willing to take advantage of the skills of mature workers.

Complete Career Makeover
Boomers who don’t mind a complete educational career makeover can find plenty of opportunity in the healthcare professions, where the largest number of new American jobs will be available over the decade. Authors Michael Farr and Laurence Shatkin (225 Best Jobs for Baby Boomers) recommend management, health care, and teaching as some of the best fields for Boomers.

Atop their list are management analysts, teachers, logisticians, operations managers, registered nurses, anesthesiologists, internists, psychiatrists, health service managers, treasurers and controllers, financial managers, pharmacists, lawyers, education administrators, sales representatives (agricultural, pharmaceutical, electrical), and private sector executives.

Targeting a new career by employer or locale can also be highly successful. Some states and companies have better track records hiring Boomers, says AARP. States with the most companies that favor mature workers are Virginia, California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, and New York.

The AARP also chalked up Boomers’ views on the best companies to work for at their age. The top ten in a 2005 survey were:

Employers value experience, AARP reports, and see it as “a huge commodity.” The Employment Policy Foundation forecasts that as a consequence of Boomer retirement, there may be 4 million more jobs than workers by 2011 and there could be 35 million more by 2030, which could be excellent news for Boomers who choose not to retire. Whether updating existing skills or fashioning a new career, Boomers should have a wealth of opportunities to continue their contributions in the American workplace well into the new Millennium.

Publish date: June 6, 2008