Moving from ideas to action: Growing interest in encore careers

A version of this post appeared on the AGEnda blog of the Sloan Center on Work and Aging at Boston College on August, 6, 2014

There is growing evidence to show that people are warm to the idea of encore careers – post midlife work or pro bono service to meet community needs. Yet despite that interest, people aren’t easily moving from thinking to doing. What will it take to move more people from ideas into action? That’s the urgent question that surfaced in Encore.org’s 2014 national survey, which asked people 50 to 70 years old about their post-midlife plans, aspirations and concerns.

Interest in encore careers rose by 17 percent from 2011 to 2014, according to national surveys conducted by Encore.org and Penn Schoen Berland. These gains are coupled with demonstrably less concern about encore income and threats to personal flexibility, both identified as major obstacles in 2011 – and relatively minor concerns three years later.

Nevertheless, the view that post-midlife is a time to use one’s personal skills and experience to help others is still held by twice as many people (55 percent) as are ready to take action to make an encore the defining feature of their own next stage (28 percent). Society needs the contributions of that other half. What will it take to better convert this belief into action?

Lowering perceived barriers to encore careers is one important step and it looks like there’s been some progress on this front in the last three years.

For example, fewer people with a high level of encore interest say that the economy would make it hard to move into encore work. That could make sense. After all, the job market has been strengthening, albeit slowly. As the economy continues to gain strength, we might hope that the options for people to move into work that speaks to their need for purpose and social impact will also improve.

Further evidence: In 2011, 30 percent of those interested in an encore had significant concerns that a next act focused on social impact wouldn’t provide the income they needed. This concern was among the top barriers just three years ago. In 2014, it dropped to one of the least significant obstacles.

In 2011, fear that moving into an encore career would mean a loss of flexibility in taking care of other important needs, like family care-giving, was quite high. Three years later the percentage of those most interested in an encore and who were quite concerned about this dropped by two-thirds. It’s possible that this relates to the diminishing concerns around income since people may believe that they can now afford to have jobs that allow them the flexibility they need. It’s also possible that there is a growing perception of greater workplace flexibility, perhaps especially in the nonprofit sector.

Fear of age discrimination remains a significant concern, although it dropped too. The continuing concern wasn’t a surprise. At Encore.org, we sometimes feel inundated with horror stories of older people shunned in their job searches. They are no doubt true and the stats about people over 50 who have been out of work the longest remain depressingly high.

The lesson here is that we need to combat age discrimination more vigorously by raising awareness of the value experienced workers bring. More broadly, we need to make the case that people in encores need to be part of the human talent mix in any organization tackling big challenges where experience is an asset.

What about the obstacles that socio-economic concerns pose for those interested in encores?

I was pleasantly surprised to see that perceived barriers dropped across all income levels.
Still, there is greater concern among the lowest earners than among those in higher income brackets. And some issues pose greater challenges to those with lower educational levels. Those with only some college expressed more concern than those who had completed college about their own confidence in trying something new, the need to learn new technologies, their health, age discrimination and the state of the economy.

Clearly, investing in those who haven’t yet completed college needs to be a priority for the encore movement. The growth of programs addressing the 50+ population in community colleges is a positive sign, but there is much more that can be done in this arena. There’s a role for four-year colleges and universities here, too, as they bring encore-type programs to their continuing education offerings. Completing college is often a step in social mobility that can happen at any age.

Perhaps the biggest lesson is that work allowing people to use their talents and decades of experience to improve their communities cannot be limited to any single socio-economic stratum. The desire to make a difference spans the gamut from those with low income and few assets to those with more resources.

With some of the most significant concerns that have held people back from pursing their encores appear to be lessening, we need to do everything we can to make sure that the opportunities are there for those who want them. It’s a human resource our society can ill afford to waste.