Encore Hartford Commencement Keynote

This speech was delivered by Marci Alboher at the 2013 graduation ceremony for Encore! Hartford, a work-force development program that helps seasoned corporate professionals transition to managerial careers in the nonprofit sector.

Thank you David, for that kind introduction. I’m honored to be speaking here today. Thanks also to Dr. Mark Robbins, Linda Friedman and others in the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy who have created a home for Encore! Hartford, the wonderful program we are celebrating today.

I’ve got to quickly remark on how gorgeous it is to look out into this audience and see all of you graduates sitting alongside your proud children! It’s a nice twist on the usual graduation – where parents beam as they watch their children accept their diplomas.

Before I get into some advice for these graduates, I want to briefly share a little bit about my own story – and why this program is so near to my heart.

I first heard about encore careers in 2007. I was a workplace columnist for the New York Times when I wrote about the book “Encore,” by Marc Freedman. That book introduced me to a big new idea – that many people hitting midlife are seized with the urge to make a difference in the world and that legions of them are going through some kind of reinvention to do it. With more than 75 million of baby boomers, and thousands turning 50 every day, that’s a huge reservoir of talent available to fix our broken schools, preserve our threatened environment, and solve so many of our nagging social problems.

I was so intrigued by this vision of an army of late career do-gooders that I wrote several follow-up pieces on it. The issue hit me both professionally and personally. I had lived through a big career change myself, having abandoned corporate law to become a journalist when I was in my 30s. That shift was motivated by wanting more purpose in my life.

In 2008, not long after fist writing about the encore idea, I faced yet another career upheaval, only this time it wasn’t my choice. The New York Times abruptly cancelled Shifting Careers, my column and blog. I was caught by surprise because Shifting Careers was quite popular. In fact, I was a little cocky because my articles were regularly showing up on the Times’ most e-mailed list and I was building a following on social media. I never thought my own job was in jeopardy. After all, I was tweeting. I was on the cutting age. But it was the early days of the Great Recession, I was an expensive freelancer, and the media industry was trying to figure out its own survival.

I was in good company, but I was still devastated. And I was embarrassed. Here I was a supposed workplace expert and I was let go from a job I loved. I relished my work as a journalist and having worked so hard to find my way into it, I thought I’d found my calling. I also knew that reinvention wasn’t easy or quick. And I doubted that I’d be able to find meaningful and fulfilling work in the new landscape of media – where the pressure to produce eyeballs and multimedia content was driving away so many of my talented colleagues.

The first thing I did was re-read everything I’d ever written about how to survive a layoff. The next thing I did was write about it – in two final blog posts for The New York Times, where I became one of the first mainstream journalists to take the story of the Great Recession to a personal level.

Eventually I networked my way back to Marc Freedman, the author of that Encore book that so affected me. And in time, I joined the staff of Encore.org, the small nonprofit he founded that is spearheading the idea of encore careers as a solution to our greatest social problems. I now spend my days working on ways to help more people move into encore careers – and shedding the spotlight on innovative programs like Encore Hartford.

In the past four years I’ve interviewed hundreds of people who have embarked on encore careers – and that work culminated in The Encore Career Handbook, published earlier this year.

I’ve spent the past six months traveling the country on a national book tour. And wherever I go, people ask me whether there’s some kind of program they could do that would help them craft their own encore careers.

Truth is I don’t usually have a recommendation.

But if you asked me where to go in Connecticut, I do.

Another reason is that I’m getting a chance to meet Rozelyn Beck, an Encore Hartford alum from the class of 2011 whom I profiled in the Encore Career Handbook. Rozelyn found her way to Encore Hartford after her position at The Hartford Insurance Company was eliminated in 2009. She started to wonder whether she wanted to climb back onto the corporate ladder again. Even though she knew it would mean a pay cut, she decided to see if she could turn a lifetime of volunteering on the side into a paid position in the nonprofit. She is now director of development and marketing at the YWCA of Hartford, which has several staffers in the audience today since they are now sponsoring other fellows.

Rozelyn is a beacon for the new Encore Hartford graduates, and she is a reminder to all of us about the potential that encore careers represent.

As I was thinking about what to say today, I scoured Google and YouTube for college commencement speeches aimed at typical college graduates. I watched and readed so many powerful talks – Oprah at Harvard, Arianna at Smith College, Stephen Colbert at UVA, Meryl Streep’s classic 2010 talk at Barnard.

I was trying to figure out how the advice you’d give to 20 year olds getting ready to join the real world would hold up for a group of 50 year-olds pioneering a whole new kind of commencing.

These talks all boil down to a few timeless nuggets – and many of them apply just as much to folks embarking on an encore career as they do to those graduating from college.

  • You literally are commencing. You may not have discovered the work you were meant to do, but you have the goods to get there.
  • Expect a lot of wrong turns and detours. Getting lost is how you find your way.
  • Failure is a necessary stop on the way to where you’re meant to go. Or as Oprah recently said at Harvard, “Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”
  • You have a network. The most important asset you have is the relationships in this room.

Of course, I probably don’t need to remind all of you to wear sunscreen. You all know that one, right? If you don’t, Google it.

But there are so many things I could say to say to this crowd that I would not be able to say to a group of 20-somethings.

We all know what diminishes with age – the ability to remember names and read tiny print on menus, the vision of yourself as physically invincible. I’m showing off some of that that right now as I remove my glasses every time I look out into this audience and then put them back on to glance at my notes on this podium! It’s also true that you may not be a digital native. But the world needs a whole lot more than and unbridled enthusiasm and a large following on Instagram. There are actually a whole lot of things that young people can’t offer – and that actually get better with age.

  • Empathy and Emotional Stability. With age comes a greater ability to listen and hear the concerns of others. Which is why people in midlife make wonderful coaches, social workers, counselors, mentors and advisers. I stopped counting the number of people who’ve told me they’d never want to see a therapist who’s under 40.
  • Wisdom. How many times have you wished that you knew then what you know now? Truth is, wisdom only arrives with accumulated years. Go out and use it!
  • Leadership. It’s no accident that heads of state and the hallways of Congress are filled with people over 60. As we age, our ability to lead, to synthesize ideas gets stronger.

Even with all of these attributes, you’ll need to adopt the right mindset:

Give yourself permission to get lost. You still have time to experiment, to take a few detours, and to invest in yourself.

  • Embrace lifelong learning. Education used to be frontloaded at the beginning of life. But in the new world order, we need to repeatedly fill the tank. If you’re going to work another 20 years, know that the best investment you may be able to make is in your own skills and training. Just like you have done in this program.
  • Be aware of ageism, but don’t fixate on it. Look for areas and work environments where experience is valued. Become a master at intergenerational mentoring and finding the upsides to working with – and for -- younger people. And take every opportunity to defy stereotypes about aging by embracing new technology and new ways of working. There is no age limit on changing the world. And only when more people move into encore careers will stereotypes of older workers fade.
  • Meaningful work isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Ask any teacher, activist, or nonprofit executive director. Doing good work doesn’t always feel good. You will likely still run into your fair share of difficult colleagues, bureaucracies, and bad days. I see a lot of nodding heads out there among those who already work in the nonprofit sector! By now you probably know that being happy every minute isn’t the end goal.

These gifts, your new skills, and a positive attitude are all going to help you as you embark on this new path.

But Encore Hartford graduates, you are trailblazers. You are taking on the project of reinventing yourselves to make sure that you have the skills and connections to make a difference in your communities during the extended working lives we are all lucky enough to enjoy. So be prepared that it won’t be easy.

And now a few words for the non-graduates in the audience. As these graduates are working on their transitions, you need to do what you can to support them. If you are a family member or guest of a graduate or an employed alum, help them find mentors and increase their network -- just as you’d do for a young person getting started on her path.

If you’re in a position to hire, recognize the unique attributes that experience can bring to your team.

Encore careers are more than the latest trend in the workplace. They have the potential to be a social movement that changes the way we look at the life course. But for this to happen, we need to ensure that what’s happening here in Hartford plays out in countless cities around the country.

So Encore Hartford Graduations and alumni, be sure to identify with the growing encore career movement. Talk about your experience in Encore Hartford. When people ask about what you’re doing, tell them you are working on your encore and ask them if they are thinking about their own. If you're here as a guest of someone else, think about what an encore career might mean for you -- and others you know.

Baby boomers may be the first to cross this threshold into a new stage of life, but they won’t be the last. Their children will one day hit midlife themselves and realize that they too have the potential for another 20+ years of good work. By that time, I predict there will be plenty of encore commencement talks floating on around YouTube, in addition to that other kind of commencement talk.