Moving from Ideas to Action: Growing Interest in Encore Careers

Posted Wednesday, August 6th, 2014| Comments (10) rule

Jim Emerman

Executive Vice President,
Guest Blogger, Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College


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’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% from 2011 to 2014, according to national surveys conducted by 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%) as are ready to take action to make an encore the defining feature of their own next stage (28%). 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% of those interested in an encore career 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 career 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, 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 encore careers 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 encore careers?

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 cannot afford to waste. Please comment. We welcome your thoughts.

10 responses to “Moving from Ideas to Action: Growing Interest in Encore Careers”

  1. Frank Hoffman says:

    I have been networking and searching for opportunities in the non-profit and other sectors since the end of 2010 and have yet to find an “employment” situation. During this time, I’ve worked on a pro bono basis advising a number of non profits using my skills and background, and there’s no question that I believe my services have brought value to these organizations. That said, without some sort of clearinghouse or mechanism for matching jobs with job seekers, finding an encore position is timing and luck, combined with frustration and disappointment. Nevertheless, I’m still hopeful and continue to network in an effort to find an employment solution. By the way, I’ve offered numerous flexible alternatives for compensation, including a willingness to accept lower than market pay, working on contract, etc. but to no avail. So, to me, the barrier to accepting encore job opportunities requires finding encore job providers.

  2. Jim Emerman says:

    Hi Frank, thanks for your comment. That’s a situation we hear about all too often. Is it your sense that it’s an age issue or just the dynamics of the labor market and maybe the nonprofit labor market particularly that’s resulting in your trouble finding a position. We’re seeing both situations in other stories. I have some hope that the job market might improve, creating more opportunities for people like you, and I agree that some kind of clearinghouse would be really helpful. The other thing that I hope can do something about is really make the case that the talent of older people is too valuable to waste and that nonprofits need to integrate people like you into their talent strategies.

    One more thought: While I’m sure you need the income from a job, your flexibility in that respect seems smart. One way we have seen people get to the attention of the people who make hiring decisions is by volunteering or offering some pro bono work on a “try me, you’ll like me” basis.

    Good luck and don’t give up the search.

  3. Onagh Ash says:

    We have two foundations in Baja and would entertain encore colleagues into several positions. I am 69 years old, retired from Silicon Valley and want to give back to this amazing community of Los Cabos. I have one Director my age who is running our food kitchen and we are covering her basic costs. She has done so much to help the kids and moms. Our other employees are local Mexican women and men. We could use some senior mentors.

  4. Pam says:

    I agree with Frank. It is a lot of hard work finding the opportunity even if you reach the point where income can be lower. We might want to change but the market is not ready.

  5. Dale Seger says:

    There is a large segment of the older population lacking a college degree that face systematic age discrimination when looking at an encore career. Even though they possess an excellent skill set using computers, software packages, customer relations via a phone, electronic communications, etc., older workers seem to fall into the category of too old to train. Even older workers with trade training and experience, I.e. electricians, plumbers, HVAC techs are viewed as lacking the skills needed when dealing with new technology. Even though we know this isnt true, the perception has become reality. The answer to the dilemma is difficult. The answer may involve community-based programs working hand-in-hand with non-profits and private companies to provide local and state tax benefits for hiring what many people consider the unhireable older worker.

  6. Jim Emerman says:

    You raise good points, Dale. It’s true that the skills of experienced workers in the trades you mention and so many others are undervalued just because of the age of the person. One small example of a project was involved in with a community college in Richmond, CA a few years ago, explored using experienced contractors to serve as mentors for younger people learning to install solar panels. I think that suggests some approaches to this challenge, but I agree that projects like this need funding and, beyond that, support to spread innovative approaches to using experienced talent to solve pressing social problems. The Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP), established by the Older Americans Act and operated by the Department of Labor is an example of how something like this might be structured, although SCSEP itself is too narrow and limited. There are some other promising models too, but they are all suffering from lack of funding to expand them.

    I think the community college system could play a useful role here too. Sometimes people just need to brush up on the latest skills to burnish their resumes to make them more appealing to an employer, although the persistent age discrimination doesn’t necessarily get solved through that.

    I like the tax benefits idea too. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 had funds available to employers to hire displaced workers, so there is some precedent for this at least on a national level.

    Keep the idea coming!

  7. Jim Emerman says:

    Onagh, you could think about posting something on our Facebook Page or LinkedIn group to see if there is anyone following us on either of those platforms that might be interested. International service is something that people do seek in encore careers, although they have unique challenges. Links to both groups are on our website,

  8. Carol says:

    I am now on my third career. My first was Child Care Specialist. I worked in it ~20 years and realized I needed a more substantial career to provide for my son and me. Many of my positions were in non-profits. I went back to school and got a Computer Science degree and worked another ~20 years. Since I retired at 61 from Computer Science I have been in the Hospitality Career. Since I changed careers and paid for a second degree I now need to augment my income to allow me to do some fun things. I am enjoying the Hospitality career. I have worked in Yellowstone National Park (this is my travel), and at ski resorts (this covers an expensive sport) . I volunteer at the theater (this covers entertainment when at home) and the Science Museum (this provides an educational experience and free entrance to other museums).

    I enjoyed your article. This stage in life is challenging and takes a lot of work to keep it going.

  9. This is a big problem. Many people have the ideas and sometimes those ideas are brilliant and need to be more popular and become reality. But many of these people are afraid and not ready to take the next step. Your program is probably what these people need right now. I remember when I started my own end of tenancy cleaning company that it took some time and effort, but I had the support of family and friends. But not everyone has that. Go encore!

  10. Phoebe says:

    One of the things that has surprised me in my counseling-coaching career as a Senior in the field working in long-term care/nursinghomes/rehab is to discover that there are residents who are very capable and possess skills that could possibly be used doing some kind of online work/telephone. I have no idea if it is appropriate to include them in the Encore world but a part of me wants to, despite the huge obstacles. I was curious if it’s been tried or thought about as part of the action.