Working Into Your 70s: A Smart Retirement Move

Extending your working shelf life means extending your savings.

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For-profit companies are also popping up to help older career switchers. Starting in fall 2012, the Encore Career Institute, a Silicon Valley technology start-up working with the University of California–Los Angeles extension, will offer online assessments, counseling, networking help, and one-year certification programs in 17 fields, including teaching, nonprofit management, healthcare management and leadership, college counseling, and financial services. The one-year online programs, which will cost $8,000 to $10,000, are specifically designed for baby boomers, a group vastly underappreciated by employers, says CEO Steve Poizner. "Turning around the impression that people over a certain age have no economic value is potentially the next civil rights battle," he says.

[See 10 Best Cities for Older Employees.]

The long view. A good way for younger workers to invest in their future value is to start preparing early for self-employment. In 2009, nearly 1 in 5 workers over 65 was self-employed, compared with about 10 percent of workers overall, and those numbers are apt to keep growing. Paradoxically, one of the best routes is to spend a few years with a corporate behemoth. "You'll have a lot more credibility when you go out on your own if you have even two years at a GE or an IBM or a Disney," says Eddy, the management coach. Greater expertise, too. She recommends scouting around at the office for self-contained projects to tackle—a strategic marketing analysis, a risk assessment, a training manual—that no one has had time to take on. And become active in your professional organizations. "If you're an active committee member from the age of 40," she says, "your options will be a lot better by the time you're 60."

Taking the long view at mid-career might well suggest a time-out for more education. Since 1987, the number of graduate students over 40 has doubled, according to estimates by the Council of Graduate Schools. More-educated workers are more likely to stay in the workforce longer, according to census data analyzed by the Employee Benefit Research Institute. So the money you spend and the income you sacrifice may be restored in years of additional wages. When San Francisco Bay Area newspaper reporter Rachele Kanigel decided in her late 30s that she'd like to switch to college teaching, she relocated her family across the country for a one-year master's degree program at Columbia University. Today, at age 50, she's a full-time professor at San Francisco State. "Reporting is a younger person's career," she says. "This seemed like a good profession to grow old in."

Before going back for a degree, though, you might consider whether there are shortcuts to the credentials you're seeking. More than 200 nursing programs in the country offer accelerated RN training lasting 11 to 18 months for people who hold bachelor's degrees, for instance; standard programs typically take two to four years. The Career Switchers program offered at 23 community colleges in Virginia allows college grads with five years of work experience to earn provisional teaching credentials in just 16 weeks. "You want the best academic credential you can get, but you don't necessarily need an M.B.A.," says Eddy. Even a several-week executive education program at Harvard Business School, for example, gains you a spot in the alumni association in your region. Those connections can pay off for decades to come.

Perhaps the biggest impact of the changed working landscape will be felt by the young people just entering the workforce. They'll clearly need to be ready for frequent changes in direction—no more putting the career on cruise control. "In driver's ed, they told us to look right in front of us, but also scan the horizon for what's down the road," says Kanigel. It was her experience—and career experts agree—that actively using "that same kind of close, medium, and far vision" is the key to negotiating all curves ahead.