CHICAGO (Reuters) - Tough economic times and intractable unemployment have made career reinvention a necessity instead of a virtue for many older Americans. But sometimes finding a new career after middle age is about more than just bringing in a paycheck.
The so-called "encore career" is continuing to gain ground among millions of baby boomers. The idea is to create a new career out of a passion -- and a desire to make a positive social contribution. Salaries are sometimes smaller, but there is a great sense of purpose.
Nine million workers age 44 to 70 already are in encore occupations, and another 31 million hope to launch them, according to a survey by Encore.org, a non-profit group that has been promoting the encore concept for several years via a combination of advocacy, networking and research.
Some baby boomers are encore career-seekers because they just are not ready to retire; others can't afford to quit working, but are looking for something new that will satisfy them. How can you find the encore path that's right for you? Where are the best job opportunities? What's the smartest way to finance a career transition of this type?
Answers can be found in "The Encore Career Handbook" (Workman Publishing), an engaging new practical guide by Marci Alboher, a vice president of Encore.org. Reuters spoke with her about some of the key questions and challenges facing encore careerists:
Q: Starting over with a new career can seem overwhelming when you're over 50. What's the best way to get started?
A: Despite the book's title, I tell people not to get too fixated on the word "career." Just think about finding the next new thing you want to jump into - whether that feels like a career, a second career or just meaningful work you'd like to do. The first task is to identify what you want, and the second part is figuring out how you will get there.
Everyone wants the secret to career reinvention, but the real secret is that it takes a long time and involves a lot of steps and detours. The only way to get there is to try things out. Taking it in small steps is less intimidating.
Q: Many older workers are skeptical about their chances to find new work because of age discrimination. Is the labor market really receptive to older workers looking for new opportunities?
A: Age discrimination is real, but I don't think it exists everywhere. The most important thing is to find environments where age and experience are valued. You'll never know if you were passed over for a job because of age, although you may have a hunch. Certain fields have the reputation of being very youth-oriented cultures - technology, for example. On the other hand, healthcare is a field that values experience. Coaching, counseling, mentoring and teaching also are fields that value the wisdom that comes through experience.
Q: Is re-training and education a prerequisite for a successful encore career? How can you determine if it's worthwhile to go back to school?
A: It's important to do a cost-benefit analysis. The average encore career lasts six years, and if you start in your early 40s or 50s it could last 10 to 20 years. So, how long you plan to work is a big part of the decision on how much to invest in time and money to re-educate yourself. If it's only going to be three to five years, it may not be worth taking on the financial burden.
And there could be low-cost alternatives -- going to conferences, taking classes at a community center.
Q: You describe the "encore number" in your book. What is that number, and how you determine your own number?
A: An encore career could well involve a lower salary than you've been getting, so the encore number is how much you need to bring in through work to lead the lifestyle you want, and also how you can make some tradeoffs. You need to know how you want to live, and where. Will you make a change in your lifestyle to bring down cost? Can you count on income from the new career, and how soon?
And there may be other creative ways to generate income. For example, could you rent out part of your house, or use it as a co-working space? Can you take an asset that is just lying there and turn it into something that produces income?
Q: You spend a great deal of time discussing how encore careerists should go about updating their resumes, networking and using social media. Aren't these skills people have already learned by the time they hit 50?
A: Yes and no. The best way to inch into something you care about is to start hanging around with people who already are doing it, and whose lives revolve around it. Changing who you spend time with will open you up to new areas of opportunity. Many people in their fifties haven't thought about reinventing themselves or tapping their networks to ask for help -- they may not have shaken up what they are doing for a very long time.
(The writer is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
(Editing by Beth Pinsker and Phil Berlowitz)