Interest in ‘Encore Careers’ Is Growing


By Kathy Gurchiek October 16, 2008

Michael Watson was stunned when the phone call came to his office from a headhunter working on behalf of Girl Scouts of America.

As far as Watson knew, the Girl Scouts were about cookies and volunteer leaders, not career paths. Not his career path.

“I had no plan to pursue the nonprofit sector as a place to work, and I wasn’t looking for a job,” said the Yale-educated Watson, who also holds a master’s degree in organizational management and HR development from Manhattanville College outside New York City.

Earlier in his career, he had settled in at IBM, where for more than four years he worked in sales before leaving in 1986 for GE’s HR Management Program. After seven years at GE he moved to Time Warner, where he worked for about four years as the HR manager.

He took a one-year self-financed sabbatical in 1997, then circled back to IBM in 1999. There he was senior HR strategist for two businesses at IBM Global Services that had combined revenues of more than $2 billion.

“I loved IBM. I was excited about my job. I saw growth and opportunity.”

The phone call changed all that. It caused the then 40-year-old Watson—who had volunteered throughout his career, including at two public elementary schools during his sabbatical—to ask himself where he could have the most impact in his work.

His daughter had been involved in Girl Scouts until her early teens, and Watson was attracted to the prospect of working for the group because of its focus on leadership and the “significant impact” he believes it has on girls age 5 to 17.

In October 1999 he became its senior vice president of HR, joining the ranks of ‘encore careerists’—an estimated 5.3 million to 8.4 million Americans age 44 to 70 who choose work that has a social impact.

“Every day when I walk into the office, I know everything we do … ultimately provide[s] support to those 26 million [Girl Scouts] and about 900,000 volunteers,” Watson told SHRM Online.

“This is as challenging as any job I’ve had. It’s very fulfilling.”

A Type of Work

An encore career defines a type of work, not a continuation of working after retirement, explains Phyllis Segar, vice president and research director of Civic Ventures, a San Francisco-based think tank devoted to baby boomer work and aging issues.

“It’s the opportunity to do work that has a social impact after your midlife work,” she told SHRM Online. “An encore career combines the seriousness of work, personal meaning and social impact.”

MetLife and Civic Ventures released results from its 2008 Encore Career Survey which found that unexpectedly large numbers of boomers are looking for jobs that can provide them with “means and meaning.”

The findings are from a nationwide phone survey conducted Feb. 23 to March 5, 2008, with 1,063 people age 44 to70, and from a nationwide online survey conducted March 26 to April 1, 2008, with more than 2,500 people age 44 to 70.

Most encore careerists, it found, are working in education (30 percent); health care (23 percent); government (16 percent); other nonprofit organizations (13 percent) and for-profit organizations serving a public good (9 percent).

Like Watson, they come primarily from professional and white-collar jobs (88 percent), 67 percent have at least a college education, more than half work 40 or more hours a week and nearly three-fourths live in cities and suburbs, according to the report.

The majority (60 percent) is made up of early boomers between the ages of 51 and 62, and more than half are women.

In addition to those already in encore careers, half of workers age 44 to 70 are interested in the idea, the survey found. Among them, half are age 44 to 50; they are about equally divided by gender, slightly more are blue-collar workers, and they are less well-educated than others their age.

Jobs this group most desire involve:

  • Working as an advocate for a group or issue, 36 percent.
  • Working with children and youth, 32 percent.
  • Working to preserve the environment, 31 percent.
  • Teaching, 31 percent.

Raising Their Hands

Interest in encore careers has increased since MetLife/Civic Ventures’ 2005 survey New Face of Work Survey that found half of U.S. workers age 50 to 70 were interested in the idea of an encore career and that there was a higher interest among workers age 50 to 59.

They are people who are raising their hands to President Kennedy’s famous challenge in his 1961 inaugural address to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” said Marc Freedman, CEO and founder of Civic Ventures.

The report’s findings, he says, are “evidence of a growing social phenomenon” that poses opportunities for nonprofits. Freedman likened the impact of encore careers to that of women moving into the workforce in the 1960s and 1970s.

“I think we need to strengthen the HR function in the nonprofit sector so there is greater sophistication in adapting” hiring policies to those interested in encore careers, he said during the MetLife/ Civic Ventures briefing on their findings.

HR could “not only change hiring practices to this pool” of potential hires but also can “draw on potential career switches from the HR profession.”

It would be a mistake, he said, not to “respond to the needs of those who want to move into a different direction” from the typical retirement scenario of golf, shuffleboard and cards.

People’s values have changed considerably since Sept. 11, 2001, Watson observed.

“A lot of people are making these decisions midcareer. At Girl Scouts, we’ve hired people from Exxon, from GE, from a wide variety of organizations. These are people … who want to use those same skills and do challenging work while making a difference in a broader society,” Watson said.

And programs that relied on boomers to perform volunteer or part-time work that came with only modest stipends likely will be less appealing as people live longer and traditional retirement plans disappear, the report points out.

“The pitcher cries for water to carry and a person for work that is real,” Freedman said, quoting American author Marge Piercy. “This idea of purpose is as important as income for [encore careerists], and I think they’re creating what might be called purpose-driven jobs.”

What Employers Can Do

Purpose is important, but so are pay and benefits. People might have a deep desire to serve, but most can’t afford to do it for nothing, and few can do as Tom Bloch did.

The former CEO of H&R Block stepped down in 1995 from an annual salary of nearly $1 million to teach math at an inner-city middle school. Today he’s president of an urban college prep charter school that he founded in Kansas City, Mo.

A majority of those surveyed for the MetLife/Civic Ventures report are worried they would not earn enough income in an encore career or maintain the benefits they need, and eight in 10 people are concerned whether encore careers would allow them the flexibility to take time off.

“To the degree you can, you have to pay as competitively as you are able to,” Watson advises employers. His pay is competitive, he said, and though benefits more typically found at for-profit firms—such as stock options—are not available, there is a pension, 401(k) and flexibility in benefits, he said.

“You also have to deliver a better work environment so you can leverage things like flexibility, flextime,” that give people more control over their time, “and better supervisors.”

The nonprofit sector needs to increase its visibility as an employer, he advises.

His organization, for example, attends job fairs and recruits on the Internet.

“Most people think it’s all [done by] volunteers,” he said. “They don’t think of it as a place where you go to work.”

The report suggests employers reshape job descriptions to offer part-time and flexible work options, use online resources to make finding encore jobs easier, and provide education and training to meet new job requirements.

“There is a talent pool of experienced, skilled adults who want to turn their attention to social impact work,” Segar said.

“Consider the potential that people in their encore careers can contribute to the social good and help create the environment where that happens,” she advises HR. “If you are an HR professional in a nonprofit organization or government, how can your organization engage that talent pool?”

Second Half of Life

Some people, such as breast cancer surgeon Dr. Peter L. Pressman, enter encore careers after traditional retirement.

The New York physician closed his office in 2003 at age 68 but found after making time for travel, golf and other pursuits that he missed the daily work regimen.

“I needed more structure in my life,” the 72-year-old Pressman told The New York Times in a July 8, 2008, news article. “I also missed the ongoing relationships with my patients and the intellectual and social stimulation from interacting with colleagues.”

His encore career, the Times reported, has included developing and directing a genetic risk assessment program for the Weill Cornell Medical Center to help women affected with genes that raise their risk of breast and ovarian cancer. He spends two days a week at the clinic.

The work ties in with his interest in staying involved and making a meaningful contribution to the world, Pressman said.

The concept of purpose-driven work in the second half of life has only recently become an issue, observed Freedman, the author of Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life (PublicAffairs, 2007).

Up until the early 1900s, “you worked ‘til you dropped,” he said. “But in the 1950s and ‘60s as more and more people had an extended period of retirement …this question of purpose, of direction, over an extended period of time became more and more awkward for people.

“Experts told [retirees] to stay out of the way, to rock aimlessly on the porch, to live a passive life, but it was too long for people who were increasingly vigorous to do that,” he said.

Now many are saying they can’t do that for 30 years—either financially or “psychically,” Freedman noted.

“Retirement won’t disappear,” observed Segar. “Retiring from your current work could create the pause, the time to think, the time to reassess.”

Some legislators have introduced bills that would encourage encore careers among seniors.

The Lifelong Learning Accounts Act of 2008 (HR 6036), introduced in May 2008, would give individuals and employers tax credits and other incentives for saving money for the training and education needed for encore careers. The Incentives for Older Workers Act(S 2933), introduced in April 2008, would extend the Social Security bonus for those who postpone claiming benefits beyond traditional retirement age.

More than 640,000 new nonprofit leaders will be needed by 2016, according to The Nonprofit Sector’s Leadership Deficit, a study by The Bridgespan Group, which helps match senior talent and organizations.

Tapping into an interest in meaningful yet financially viable work could help fill that predicted leadership gap when boomers retire.

“It’s been well established that Americans will continue to work past the age of when our parents retired,” Segar noted. “The question that remains to be answered is what kind of work we’ll do.

“We can be Wal-Mart greeters or SUV salespeople, or we can use our energy and our passion” for something that aids society.

Bridgespan and IBM teamed up in 2005 to create Transition to Teaching, a program that provides a way for employees interested in a second career to become math and science teachers for students in kindergarten through high school.

“Our employees have a high level of skills and ability in management and technology that can be applied to serving our communities,” IBM’s vice president of Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Affairs, Stanley S. Litow, said in a press release.

He called the program “the kind of corporate leadership and partnership with nonprofits that is necessary to make a significant difference to society, to the employee and to the company.”

“There is a need for work to be done,” said Segar. “There’s a supply to do it, and we have to figure out how to connect the two.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at


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