Encore Careers Visionary Pushes Social Change

As seniors embrace new careers, Marc Freedman wants to help define a new vision of older age.

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The idea of older people finding new work passions and careers well into their 60s and even 70s has entered the mainstream. Driven by surging numbers of aging baby boomers and a tough recession, encore careers have become increasingly common. That wasn't the case in 1997, when Marc Freedman founded Civic Ventures and began supporting and celebrating older social entrepreneurs who developed ventures to make the world a little bit better.

Older couple painting on a canvas outdoors
Older couple painting on a canvas outdoors

The name Civic Ventures was always envisioned as a temporary placeholder that would be replaced with a more specific name, Freedman recalls. "From the get-go, we really felt like the epitome of the encore career is kind of a practical idealism," he says. "It combines the requirement for most of us to continue earning a market income with health insurance, with having a sense of purpose." One of the branding phrases of encore careers, he notes, became "passion, purpose, and a paycheck."

"There are millions of people who are already at this work," he says, describing the sustained trend of new and extended careers for seniors. "For us, it is less of an abstract notion and more of an opportunity to tell the stories of people who are already doing it." Partnering with foundations and corporate supporters, the group began an annual awards program to celebrate inspiring stories of social entrepreneurs. This year, five entrepreneurs received $100,000 prizes for their work and the stories of another 35 finalists were also collected and publicized. All are at least 60 years old.

[Read: Is an Extended Senior Career in Your Future?]

Now in its seventh year, the awards program is a notable example of how busy things became for Freedman. So, it wasn't until earlier this year that the organization finally got around to changing that temporary name, becoming Encore.org. With that task under his belt, Freedman is continuing on with his goal of helping create nothing less than a new definition of what it means to be older in America.

In the 1960s and 1970s, he says, the concept of a golden retirement was pursued by "leisure pioneers" and businesses to launch Sunbelt retirement communities. "They played an incredibly important role in moving to Sun City and places like that," he says. "There was never more than 5 percent of the [retired] people who did this, but it had an important role in determining the cultural norm" of what retirement should be like.

[Read: Pretirement: A New Stage of Life.]

Now, he argues, gains in longevity and expanded lifestyle opportunities have created the conditions for shaping a new model of retirement. "Encore career pioneers can do the same thing" as leisure pioneers did 50 years ago, Freedman says. "We've been stuck in a model of life that was built for people who lived much shorter lives."

With life spans "moving from three score and 10 [70 years] to five score [100 years]," it's time for a newer and more appropriate model of how older people can approach their later years, he says. Freedman's encore career pioneers "can help reset the dream for this part of life in a broad way. I think it could bring back the aspirational element [in society] that we've sort of lost in later life."

[In Pictures: 10 Inspirational Senior Entrepreneurs.]

Beyond celebrating inspirational social entrepreneurs, Encore.org has begun working to create better pathways to help older people make the transition into new careers. Internships for older employees, for example, can make as much sense as the more common programs for young workforce entrants. "The pathways [to new careers] to help people who have been busy doing something else are poorly developed and expensive," Freedman says.

"We need to come up with a version of longer working lives that is successful," he adds. This includes creating new outlooks about appropriate careers lengths for both employers and seniors themselves. "It's all about that time-horizon question," he explains. "If you ask yourself, 'What can I do if I had 10 or 15 more years?' It totally changes your outlook."