The week of January 25, 2015

Retirement 2.0: Seniors plug in for encore careers

By Allen Weiner

During a conference call staff meeting on my last day of work, I announced that I was leaving my previous job after 15 years of cumulative service. Few were surprised, but a colleague I had known for many years asked the inevitable and age-appropriate question.

“Are you retiring?” she asked. “Nope,” I responded. “I am just getting started.”

I am one of millions of seniors in the U.S. who decided to walk away from an established body of work and seek what is commonly referred to as “an encore career.” At the age of 24, naive and inexperienced, I lucked into my first job as a newspaper reporter and columnist. After 10 years at two newspapers, followed by five more in the magazine and new-media publishing spaces, I gave up my true calling to work in a far more lucrative career as a globe-trotting technology analyst. Even while relaxing in the business-class cabin of a flight to exotic destinations, it was always my dream to return to the world of journalism. When the opportunity came calling, I knew it was time for an encore.

I was lucky to be in the right place and the right time in regards to new technology. Two of the daily newspapers I worked for moved from analog to digital during my tenure, and I took more than a casual interest in observing the installation of Wordstar writing and editing terminals, not to mention the huge backoffice servers that would eventually take the place of manual typesetting.

But my luckiest break came in 1993 as head of new media for the San Francisco Chronicle, where led the team that launched the first daily newspaper on the Web. At the age of 40, I learned the language of the Internet in its near-native form and was part of its early commercial manifestation. It’s been a vital part of my career ever since, giving me the tools for exploration, communications, socialization, and personal expression that have allowed me to work well beyond the traditional point in which one receives his symbolic gold watch for time served.

Now a common term, an encore career represents a number of possible milestones: It can mean taking on a new field after retirement, continuing in your chosen area but in a new capacity, or striking out on your own as an entrepreneur.

I was lucky to be in the right place and the right time in regards to new technology.

Statistics show I have plenty of silver-haired peers working well past retirement age. The U.S. Census Bureau states that 16 percent of retirees remain in the workforce, up 4 percent in a little more than a decade. Far more telling is a peek into the future: A poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research revealed that 82 percent of workers over 50 believe they will work after retirement. Some 47 percent of those polled said they will be retiring an average of three years later than they thought when they were 40.

Changing course

The increase in the senior labor force is as a result of both economic prosperity and economic need, Professor Mo Wang of the University of Florida told the Kernel. Wang, director of the school’s Human Resource Research Center, said that those who have done well financially tend to remain in their careers, wanting to keep their skills fresh and to pass them on to the next generation. For those who are working out of financial need, he added, the post-retirement path is often lower-end service-oriented jobs.

Wang added that health and healthcare both play a role in older Americans working past retirement. With advances in healthcare, more people are staying fit and mentally sharp after traditional retirement age, and with Obamacare now providing low-cost healthcare options, workers can afford to strike out into more entrepreneurial activities.

While healthcare is less of an issue for the older workforce, Wang admitted fear of technology and a lack of understanding of how to use the Internet is a stumbling block for the workers who need it most. In other words, it’s causing yet another digital divide.

“Because most people did not find their previous job using the Internet, they have difficulty marketing themselves on sites such as LinkedIn and searching for new jobs,” Wang observed. “Older adults would be more motivated to learn about new technology if there were more programs in place to help them.”

At 71, Norma Krieger is an inspiration. She was born in the Virgin Islands and raised in New York City—a city whose culture and pulse became the heartbeat of her early life. With a great opportunity in hand, Krieger moved back to St. Croix, where she worked as a hotel quality control manager for years until the she felt something was missing.

16 percent of retirees remain in the workforce, up 4 percent in a little more than a decade.

“Even though I thought I would slow down in St. Croix, I was really warming up, and I was at my creative best,” Krieger told the Kernel. “I realized that I wasn’t creatively fulfilled and wanted to change course,” she continued. “I took stock of my personal worth and was compelled to create a brand that encompassed all my passions, skills, and interests. My art and advertising qualifications alone empowered me to move directly without hesitation into living my dream.”

At an age when many shuffle off to the shuffleboard court, Krieger founded the Krieger Creative Group, a company that represents top talent in the art world. Krieger is quick to admit that embracing rather than fearing technology has been a tremendous help.

“The Internet is everything; it is the global viewpoint,” Krieger noted. “I spend a lot of time on the Internet, researching, developing new relationships for the business, and keeping up with new marketing trends. In fact, today I will be participating in an interesting Adweek webinar in partnership with Shutterstock: ‘The future of branded video.’ I have joined a few Meetup entrepreneurial networking groups as well to keep myself connected to the community.”

Onboarding ‘digital immigrants’

Technology skills don’t always come easily to so-called “digital immigrants”—someone born prior to the spread of the Internet. Most observers believe those born before 1980 are digital immigrants, and the older an individual is, the more difficult the mastery of all things digital becomes.

AARP, an organization dedicated to the varied concerns and issues of seniors (which is anyone over 50 years of age), is trying to level the playing field. In 2013, AARP launched a far-reaching program called “Life Reimagined” with the goal of providing information, support, education, and the tools seniors need to empower decisions related to life and work. The Washington, D.C.-based group has assembled a number of experts in the field of encore careers and career counseling. Perhaps its best offering is Learning Advisor, a Web-based open-education classroom produced and curated in partnership with Kaplan, Inc.

Learning Advisor has individual courses, as well as curricula that can lead to a degree in such areas as business, education, nursing, and information technology. For those who simply want to get over their fear of using the Internet, there are classes like “Work From Home: Find and Get Your Dream, Work-From-Home Job,” “Navigating Internet’s Course, Small Business Internet Marketing,” and “How to Create a Marketing Video for your Business or Product.”

“Older adults would be more motivated to learn about new technology if there were more programs in place to help them.”

Richard Eisenberg, assistant managing editor and senior Web editor for Next Avenue, heralds the fact that organizations such as AARP and PBS, which supports Next Avenue, have embraced technology to offer powerful resources to the country’s growing over-50 population.

“I believe the Internet plays an important role in advancing opportunities for those seeking encore careers, as well as for those who use the Internet in these new adventures,” Eisenberg told the Kernel. “Making a major life transition can be perilous and confusing, and the Internet can guide you by providing information about how to do it and stories of others who’ve done it.” 

While there are a number of resources available to help seniors with their extended careers, they aren’t always easy to find.

“I think there is adequate skills development programming and training for those needing tech skills for their encore careers, through in-person and online courses and how-to videos,” the Next Avenue editor said. “It just isn’t easy to find for many people.”

Steven Maser, Encore Fellows program manager at Social Venture Partners in Portland, Ore., takes a far more pragmatic approach to the issue of technology training for seniors. The Encore Fellows program places experienced senior professionals with socially responsible organizations for transitional assignments.

“I’m trying to figure out whether I should be providing skill development programming,” Maser said. “Many Fellows come from tech companies like Intel or HP, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they all have the tech skills they require because they come from HR, marketing, and many other functional areas of management. At the same time, social purpose organizations are not always cutting-edge when it comes to using technology. They often put their limited resources into delivering direct services to clients in need, acknowledging that they could benefit from improving their technical infrastructure.” 

Stephen Ristau is executive director at William Temple House, a 50-year-old social services nonprofit in Portland, Ore., that provides services such as counseling and food to those in need. Like me, at age 61, his mastery of the Internet and its vast resources has been crucial to his work in counseling those seeking help in their encore careers. The key, he says, is creating the proper balance between technology and personal interaction.

“Much of my technology knowledge and skills have been self-taught or by trial and error,” Ristau told the Kernel. “While I understand that this is a challenge for some people 50-plus, it is something I have accessed since the first days of email, online searches, and use of various software programs and applications. I am aware of tech skills courses at community colleges and think that is a great place for retooling. 

“Making a major life transition can be perilous and confusing, and the Internet can guide you by providing information about how to do it and stories of others who’ve done it.”

“I have used social media and online tools to stay connected in an increasingly tech-driven world. I try to keep a balance between hi-tech and hi-touch, particularly because much of my work is relational,” Ristau added. “I have always been an effective networker and find that online tools support and accelerate that process; even a personal Facebook page allows me to connect to others within and across generations.”

Gone fishing?

Encore careers are something of a thing in my house. 

After 20 years as a hospital administrator in Seattle, Phoenix, and San Francisco, my wife hung up her MBA-driven career to become a stay-at-home mom. As our daughter approached her final year of college, the itch to get back into the workforce took hold, and my wife began the hunt for an encore career.

One night, with close friends over for dinner, the topic came up, and, knowing my wife and my love of cooking, one of her friends suggested she work in something related to food. After some extensive research and combing through several career sites, my wife landed as a kitchen assistant at a major cooking store that was known for its specialized classes.

While I recall my wife having difficulty boiling water when we met more than three decades ago, her skills have improved dramatically, fueled by finding interesting recipes online and spending hours watching cooking videos on YouTube.

While my wife and I might be a bit unusual as a dual encore-career household, our use and mastery of the Internet was a major strength in our landing new careers at a time most people put up the “Gone fishing” sign.

Will we still be at the daily grind in 10 years? If the Internet is still around, it’s highly likely.

Illustration by J. Longo