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The Dangerous Myth of Reinvention

Two recent news stories show the upside of encore success stories – and the downside of reinvention myths.

BusinessWeek recently posted a slideshow to its site, showcasing 16 people in new, later-life careers. Eight of the 16 are in true encore careers dedicated to the greater good, and two of these are ones we know well.

James Otieno (an Encore Fellow) transitioned from HP into a foundation he started to build schools in Kenya and Sudan. Adele Douglass (a Purpose Prize winner) launched a nonprofit that certifies that livestock are treated humanely.

The 16 stories are proof that, even in very tough economic times, some people are finding their way to great new careers beyond midlife. That’s encouraging!

At the same time, I worry that short blurbs like these make jumping to an encore look as easy as changing clothes. For those who are doing the hard work of retraining, networking, and volunteering on the path to a new job, that’s discouraging!

Let’s get real. As my colleague Marc Freedman writes in The Big Shift, the transition to encore careers “is just too hard” and often the “exclusive province of the heroic, lucky or loaded.” Most of those who are finding encores now are pioneers, working alone and against great odds.

It shouldn’t have to be that way. We need to take steps to make it easier. We need more bridges to the jobs that need doing – more encore fellowships, more affordable retraining programs (and more help paying for them), more flexible jobs, more employers who value life and work experience, more help with big issues like health insurance, and more organizations on the local level that can help.

And maybe fewer rabbit-out-of-a-hat reinvention stories that skip over the “how they did it” part.