Real Estate Agent ; River Restorer - One Woman's Rocky Path to an Encore Career

Meredith McKenzie. By Sam Eaton/Marketplace

Dwindling savings are forcing many boomers to abandon the traditional American dream of retiring in their 60s to a life of endless leisure. And some are finding that working longer forces them to re-examine their values.

The public radio program, “Marketplace,” describes 56-year-old Meredith McKenzie’s rocky encore career journey from prosperous real estate agent in Southern California to nonprofit program manager, heading up efforts to restore an industrial stretch of river.

“I think I bought into something that everybody bought into, which was a definition of the American dream as being more, more, more, more, more; and an economic society that said grow, grow, grow, grow, grow,” McKenzie told correspondent Sam Eaton.

After the real estate market crashed, she began working as a program manager at the Arroyo Seco Foundation in Pasadena, where she's heading up efforts to restore the Arroyo Seco, a graffiti-covered concrete trench with a trickle of polluted water. The nonprofit job pays less than half of what she used to earn.

On a typical day, she rolls up her jeans to wade out into a Los Angeles river to test the water quality.

“If you looked at my life two years ago, I was schmoozing people and sitting in fancy restaurants. And today I’m down and dirty and back to nature about as much as you can get back to nature in the city,” she said.

When she moved from an upscale beach house to a one-room converted garage, the change of lifestyle jolted her so much that she sat down and cried.

Then, reports Eaton, something happened. Her stress level went down 90 percent when she no longer had to earn as much money, which she found “really liberating.” Although her friends worry about her, they know that she’s following her heart.

As Marc Freedman, founder and CEO of Civic Ventures, told Eaton, “If the old dream was the freedom to work, maybe the new dream is the freedom to work, to be able to continue contributing in ways that pay the bills and provide health insurance but also provide a new sense of meaning and the opportunity to use your accumulated experience in ways that matter.”

The clincher: The state has frozen funding for her position, so she’s currently working for free for the nonprofit, while earning just enough on the side, doing consulting and teaching, to pay her rent.

McKenzie chalks it up to living “in a time of change and chaos.” She told Eaton, “I don’t think anybody can plan anything. I think all you can do is get up every day and do the best you can.”