This profile is one of eight first-person stories featured in Marc Freedman’s latest book, The Big Shift. Each person has taken a deeply personal journey in midlife that has led to work helping others.

Mark Noonan
Portland, Ore.

My wife died in 2004, and all the grieving and mourning sent me spinning, about what was the purpose of life. I did a lot of reflecting on how I was spending my time.

I had had a great career in high-tech, starting in 1977. I was at Intel. I was at IBM. I was at several smaller startup companies. It was a really great experience, very rewarding, both financially and careerwise.

And then the new century rolled in, and as the world economy changed, my job got a lot tougher. The early days in Silicon Valley, when you could pick any parking lot and drive in and get a job, were long gone.

I was spending a lot of time downsizing and outsourcing engineering work, sending manufacturing offshore. And I felt like my work was more about tearing down communities and breaking up families. That didn’t feel right, since my real reason for working was centered around family and keeping that going.

For two years after my wife died, I tried to reenergize my feelings about the high-tech world. Then, at a certain point, I just realized that I didn’t have the heart for it anymore. I wanted to do something where I was giving back a little more. Some of the idealism I’d had in the ’60s was still there. I wanted to do work that would feed my soul and not just my pocketbook.

So I went to management and said I’d just rather package out at this point. At the time, if you could show that your job was going away because of outsourcing, there was federal money for retraining. I was able to sit down and think about what kind of work would really excite me for the next 15 or 20 years.

I’m a ruminator, so I took two or three months just to consider options. I had an opportunity to go to a career counselor, as part of my buyout package. I actually decided not to do that, even though it was a benefit. I just had pretty good confidence that I could work through it on my own. And that’s pretty much what I did.

I considered going to chef school, taking a class on a cruise ship. I did some market research. I tried to follow my heart. I had friends point me in different directions. And I started exploring the gerontology world and social services around aging.

I didn’t have the privilege of having a lot of grandparents when I was growing up, so I can’t say that I was drawn to the field from a pure stance of wanting to help older people. It was more from pure potential and need and what I thought would be some real job opportunities. By the year 2020, about a third of the population will be 55 and older.

People are living much longer, and they’re going to live a lot healthier, and they’re going to want to do things. That just said to me that this is a growing market. And I started getting excited in a way that I haven’t since the high-tech bubble was just starting up.

I was 52 at the time, and the last thing I wanted to do was study for three or four years for an entirely new career. So I was looking pretty closely at the community colleges around here for a one- to two-year program that could get me back out to the job market rapidly. I have a B.S. in engineering, so I didn’t have to worry about any general requirements. I was able to get an associate’s degree in gerontology in a year and a half.

It was very intimidating to think about going back to school – the idea of being on campus and roaming around with the coeds and being the only white-haired person in the class. But at Portland Community College, I was able to do my entire course of study online. I had great discussions online with people I never met.

I had years of management experience, and I kind of locked into the idea that I loved helping volunteers find their niche, find what they wanted to do. I did three internships – one with our local Meals on Wheels in a senior center, one with our local AARP, and one with the Northwest Oregon Volunteer Association.

In each case, I worked with the volunteer manager and got a resume item and made contacts. I did a fourth internship with Elders in Action, and out of that I learned some valuable skills, and I got to be known, and I got to know them. And when a job came open there, I was in the right place at the right time.

I started as a program specialist, working to help refer people to resources they needed or mediate disputes. And then I moved into a job matching needs with volunteers. And now, given all my previous high-tech experience, I’ve been able to create a new job with the ostentatious title of social media manager.

I work with Facebook and Twitter to reach out to our partners and to potential donors and to get the word out. It’s actually been a lot of fun. You have to become a fan on our Facebook page!

When I think about the big picture, I wasn’t lucky in the sense that my encore career really came out of tragedy. But I feel fortunate now to have been able to find work that I love and to know that I want to keep doing it, and growing with it, for a long, long time.

Mark Noonan has been working at Elders in Action for the past four years.