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When Retirement's Out of Reach: 5 Expert Tips for Starting an Encore Career

As experts scramble to contain the financial crisis, older workers are staying in the workforce longer. In October, the Congressional Budget Office reported that American pensions and 401k plans had lost $2 trillion over the previous 15 months. In a recent AARP survey, 34 percent of respondents reported that they were considering delaying retirement. While the figures make traditional retirement feel like a distant dream, many Americans age 44 to 60 are getting a second wind.

According to MetLife Foundation and Civic Ventures, 5.3 million Americans are working in so-called “encore careers”–post-retirement age jobs that provide workers with a sense of purpose, in addition to income and benefits. Baby Boomers are finding encore opportunities through non-profits, entrepreneurship, and public service. Here are five expert tips for landing an encore career:

1. Follow Your Bliss
Frank Farley, psychologist and former American Psychological Association president, recommends you start by looking at activities with a high potential for personal fulfillment. If there’s something you’re passionate about–like writing, painting, or teaching–it might be time to heed the words of Carl Jung and “follow your bliss.” If you think you might regret passing up an opportunity, says Farley, you’re probably on the right track: “You don’t want to look back and think, ‘I wish I’d done that.’”

2. Get Real
Once you get an idea for what kind of career you want to pursue, examine the practical implications of your new direction. Take stock of your present or past career–the parts you enjoyed and the parts that made you want to retire early. Among the questions you should ask yourself, Farley lists: “Is this enough for me?” and “Can I make enough to support myself and my spouse?”

3. Test the Waters
Even if your encore career is workable, you should test the waters before diving in. “You have to engineer your passion into some form of reality,” says Farley, “or you’ll wish you were back in your old job with a reliable paycheck.” What’s the best way to test the waters? Farley recommends volunteering or finding a part-time job in your prospective career field, or enrolling in some college courses.

4. Make Sure You Have Useful Skills
Wherever you find an encore career, you’ll likely competition from younger workers, so it’s important to remain versed in relevant skills. In particular, it’s important for seniors to be computer literate, as many employers (erroneously) perceive older workers as less up-to-date on information technology. Cecil Hemingway, United States retirement practice leader for Aon Consulting, advises: “Your best defense, whether you’re ready for retirement or not, is you have to be sure you have valuable, usable skills���. If you don’t have valuable skills, you’re going to have a problem.”

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Stick it Out
There’s always the chance you may want to stay in your current career. If this is the case, says Alicia H. Munnell, director of the center for retirement research at Boston College, tell your boss you’re in it for the long haul. “If you’re a 55-year-old worker, you want to tell your company that you intend to be there at least 10 years, that you want to be considered for training and promotion and that you’re actively involved in your job.”

Whether you decide to hold onto your old career, or blaze a new trail with an encore career, the right training and skills can help you make sure that when retirement does come, you should have a substantial enough nest egg, as well as a newfound sense of purpose and contribution.

MSNBC.com, “Your Career: Tips for Older Job Seekers”
New York Times, “Working Longer as Jobs Contract”
USA Today, “Boomers’ new jobs give back”
USA Today, “Midlifers live their dreams by changing careers”

Publish date: December 3, 2008