Boomers Redefine Retirement With 'Encore' Careers

Many are using their retirement years to pursue a purpose, a passion, or a dream.

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To become a certified personal fitness instructor, you have to be at least 18 years old. New Yorker Liliane Kates had that nailed. When she took the exam in 2005, she was well past 65.

Of course, the rigorous test extended far beyond an age requirement. But Kates, who closed the doors of her boutique employment agency three years earlier, was up for the challenge. Like many of today's retirees, Kates is not the kind of person who can sit around. Instead, many are using their retirement years to pursue a purpose, a passion, or a dream. They want to be engaged intellectually, give back, and find meaning in their own lives in a way they couldn't during their full-time career days.

[See When Retirement Means More Work.]

Many of these retirees—if you can call them that—are working as apprentices or volunteers who receive no pay or minimal compensation. According to a poll by Princeton Survey Research Associates, half of Americans ages 50 to 70 want to find work that has social impact after their primary career ends. Between 5.3 million and 8.4 million Americans ages 44 to 70 have already launched "encore careers," positions that combine income with personal meaning and social good, according to a 2008 survey commissioned by the MetLife Foundation and Civic Ventures, a San Francisco-based think tank. "Very few people start a career in retirement purely for the money," says Marc Freedman, founder and chief executive of Civic Ventures and author of Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life. "They're swapping money for meaning. The old retirement dream was the freedom from work. The new, purpose-focused dream is the freedom to work."

[Also see Deciding When to Delay Retirement.]

There's demand for retirees who want to use their expertise to make a difference. Nonprofit organizations are likely to confront a "leadership deficit" of more than 600,000 senior managers in the next decade, according to Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit that advises foundations and nonprofits.

Kates got the idea to become a fitness trainer after connecting with the Transition Network, a nonprofit that helps women over 50 decide what they'd like to do with their next stage of life. "I loved to exercise, and I was fit," Kates says. She decided to become a trainer for older adults and enrolled in Marymount Manhattan College's adult education program to obtain a fitness training degree. After graduation, she bolstered her credentials by getting certified as a personal trainer by the American Council on Exercise.

When Kates learned that the Arthritis Foundation was looking for fitness instructors, she applied. Having arthritis herself, she was familiar with what workouts delivered the best results for those with the condition. Although the pay is nominal, she says that's not what's important; it's the sheer joy of movement and the thrill of knowing those who work out along with her feel it too. "You can't put a price on that," Kates says. "This was a way to give back and keep going at the same time."

The new Serve America Act creates "encore" fellowships for Americans ages 55 and older to serve in one-year management and leadership positions with nonprofit organizations. For those who want to learn skills in the classroom, roughly 30 programs grant master's degrees in nonprofit study. (Many of them offer night courses.) Go to for listings of 292 undergraduate, graduate, and certificate programs. Course work varies from school to school, but many include classes in nonprofit marketing, fund-raising, campaigns, corporate philanthropy, ethics, and law. A growing number of community colleges also offer programs tailored to students ages 50 and older who are looking to retrain for jobs in education, healthcare, and social services.

Corporations also offer programs: Hewlett-Packard, for example, launched a pilot program to help employees over age 50 transition from the corporate world into careers in the nonprofit sector. Those selected to participate receive a $25,000 stipend for working six months full time at a nonprofit. After the fellowship, Civic Ventures, Commongood Careers, and Bridgestar provide individual coaching and job search and placement services. "Today's retirees are workplace pioneers, crafting a hybrid between the practicalities of continued income, health benefits, and the spirit of service," Freedman says.