Second Acts: Turning Your Passion Into a Paycheck

A growing number of baby boomers are looking to profit from their passions.

Retired couple.
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When Marva Goldsmith took a buyout in 2001 after a 20-year career at a Detroit utilities company, she moved to Washington, D.C., in search of a job that would use her experience lobbying on energy as well as her training as an electrical engineer. But she was dogged by a question a career coach had once posed: "If you could do anything, without any constraints, what would you do?"

Inspired, Goldsmith unearthed an old dream of owning a clothing boutique (never mind that she had no experience in fashion retailing) and appended to it her talent for persuading people. Result: a consulting company that helps people buff up their image and the book Re-Branding Yourself After Age 50. She acquired her first customers by going to conferences in the utilities industry and networking with former colleagues who had watched her in action.

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"Even if you're transitioning to something very different, your network knows your skill sets," says Goldsmith, 53. A former co-worker who was on the board of a local nonprofit handed her a $10,000 contract to put on four seminars for women transitioning from welfare to work—the start of what Goldsmith says is now a booming business coaching and running seminars for baby boomers changing careers.

Goldsmith certainly identified a hot market, and she exemplifies it. As housing values, job security, and nest eggs have shrunk, more and more American workers are finding themselves in her shoes. Some are changing careers because they're itching to follow a passion; others because they've been downsized out or have had to reschedule retirement.

Nearly half of working Americans now worry that they haven't set aside the funds they'll need to retire comfortably, up from 29 percent in 2007, according to a survey by the Employee Benefits Research Institute. A 2011 report by the MetLife Foundation and Encore.org, an information provider for older job seekers, found that about 9 million Americans, or 9 percent of people between age 44 and 70, are in second careers—up 7 percent in the last three years. Another 31 million are interested in pursuing a career change.

The first step for older career switchers, experts say, is to envision the existence they want going forward. "For most younger people starting out in a career, it's all about climbing a ladder and supporting your family, and doing things because you have to, not because you want to," says Nancy Collamer, a career coach in Old Greenwich, Conn., and author of Second-Act Careers: 50+ Ways to Profit From Your Passions During Semi-Retirement, to be published by Ten Speed/Random House in January. "Now is the time to be thinking about how you want to spend your day, and what you want your life to look like."

For many who have spent their first half working for other people, the soul-searching often leads to entrepreneurship. "There was a management change at MGM and the boss who I loved working for left," says Doug Gleason, 56, who was running the consumer-products division of MGM Studios in Los Angeles at the time, in 2007. "I thought this is probably the time for me to move on as well." But in what direction?

Having always had dogs and loved animals, and having long entertained the idea of starting a business, Gleason opted to apply his consumer-products expertise to his own enterprise: TrueBlue Pet Products, a company that markets dog shampoos, dental swipes, and other cleaning products made from natural botanical materials. "I thought if I could take something I like and turn it into a business, great," says Gleason, whose early career included working in packaged goods at companies such as PepsiCo and Disney.

He first spent months researching the market by perusing online and offline pet stores, and joined the American Pet Products Association to network with other professionals in the industry. He drew from his savings and took out a second mortgage so he could spend a year developing his product line. Then he had to go out and beg for shelf space at pet stores all over the country. Today TrueBlue is sold on Amazon and in several regional pet-store chains, Gleason says, and the company is in the black.