The American Spirit of Encore Careers

Posted Wednesday, August 7th, 2013| Comments (8) rule
A happy marriage of volunteering, work, and entrepreneurship
Helen Dennis
Specialist in Aging, Employment and the New Retirement


An encore career—one initiated later in life—is usually not just about the money. Instead, this growing movement combines purpose, passion, and a paycheck in service to the greater good. By marrying the best of volunteering, work, and entrepreneurship, the encore career is rooted in American tradition—our history and values.

Volunteerism and vocation

Volunteers built this country and shaped American society. During colonial times, men pooled their efforts to clear land and raise barns; women helped one another with annual house cleaning. Volunteers established churches, donating land, materials, and money so their communities could have their own places to worship. In the 1600s, colonists in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York formed citizen fire brigades. Three and half centuries later, the United States is known as a society of volunteers. Continuous with the tradition of volunteerism is the desire for vocation—for work that has personal meaning and social resonance.

Currently, 64.5 million Americans (more than a quarter of the U.S. population) are volunteers. As of 2010, they were estimated to be providing about 8 billion hours of service a year, valued at $173 billion.

Just as volunteerism is central to American values, so is work. The American work ethic arose from the Puritan belief that hard work is an honor to God leading to a prosperous reward. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Americans work more than Europeans do. For better or worse, we take less vacation, work longer days, and retire later in life.

Entrepreneurship is another American ideal. For entrepreneurship to thrive, certain social conditions must exist: political stability and rule of law, absence of bureaucratic and regulatory barriers to incorporation, and incentives for people to invest their own capital in new businesses1.  We have them all, and older adults know it. The Kaufman Foundation reports that Americans between the ages of 55 and 64 had a higher rate of entrepreneurial activity than those between the ages of 20 and 34.

Putting the pieces together

Decades ago, the nonprofit world attempted to launch initiatives somewhat similar to the current encore movement.

In 1976, the Volunteer Center of Los Angeles launched the nonprofit organization Second Careers. Its purpose was to steer business retirees into important and fulfilling volunteer jobs among community service agencies in Los Angeles. This project’s social purpose was evident; the pay was not.

In 1981, the Los Angeles Council on Careers for Older Americans morphed into the nonprofit organization Career Encores. Its purpose was to help older adults find jobs, through an array of employment services. Work for pay was present; social purpose was not.

Both of these organizations focused on encore work life but did so piecemeal, and neither exists today.

Not until the Baby Boom generation neared retirement did the concept of meaningful, entrepreneurial paid work with a social purpose ignite into a movement. Baby Boomers looked at the world of work and asked the same question raised by women in Betty Friedan’s 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique: “Is this all?”

The encore movement is a response to that question. This movement is a timely transformation of expectations as we age—an expression of Americans’ passion to solve social problems and of our willingness to reach for the brass ring, with all of the risks and rewards that attend the gesture.

The marriage of volunteering, work, and social entrepreneurship is a natural outgrowth of the American tradition of volunteerism and our work ethic. The time is right for encore careers. And so a new question arises: “What are our professional and personal roles in making this innovative movement a new root of American culture and values?”

8 responses to “The American Spirit of Encore Careers”

  1. Jan Hively says:

    We may be aware of all of the elements described in this blog, but we haven’t seen them integrated as effectively to produce both a clear description and a compelling rationale for encore careers. Bravo!!

  2. Greg Merrill says:

    Helen – well done, as always. While the phrase ‘encore career’ is not new, your construction and presentation is vibrant and compelling, and prompted a visit to an old friend — a dictionary. The idea that our encores, our ‘additional performance,’ will/can be on a different stage, with a new script, plot, characters, conclusion and duration, etc. is the personal side of your question. What an opportunity, to rediscover and (re)create ourselves.

    On a broader scale, will the encore careers of Boomers be another way in which this generation continues to reshape and evolve our culture and country? You raise that has a constructive challenge, in the best possible sense.

    A concluding question/idea: do you envision that the growth of encore careers will be associated with or augmented by the creation of ‘social apps’, as many of us connect with and support family, friends and communities? (Not exactly sure what a ‘social app’ might be but figure there are untold opportunities for using the explosion in technology on this journey.)

  3. Debbie Banda says:

    Great piece, Helen! At AARP, we are seeing a high level of interest among our members in entrepreneurship. People are hungry for resources and mentors, and we’re working hard to help.

  4. Concept is needed and idea is great, but we do not see much of it in action in the way she describes. Volunteerisum is accepted, and many do that but the “ENcore” concept
    is often limited. Too many boards (where strong volunteers are badly needed) continue to have age limits and limits exist in other areas altho’ never stated.

    Let’s continuet to work on this, but we have a long way to go from talk to action.

  5. Helen Dennis says:

    Hi Jan. I fully agree that the elements are not yet well integrated. We are dealing with new terminology and also a concept that is not universal. The encore career is not relevant to everyone. In time that integration should occur. We may even come up with different terminology. As always, thank you for your thoughtful comment.

  6. Helen Dennis says:

    Hi Greg. I agree that the encore career movement is yet another example of the boomer generation redefining what it means to age. Social apps for encore careers is a great idea. Some of the current connections on the Internet seems to be a good beginning. There is much room for innovation as you noted. Many thanks for taking our collective thinking to another level.

  7. Helen Dennis says:

    Hi Debbie. Great to know that AARP is meeting these important aspirations of AARP members. Best wishes in continuing to leading the charge.

  8. Helen Dennis says:

    Hello Sherry. Yes, we have lots of work to do. Unfortunately age discrimination still exists, even in non-profits. Hopefully with coordinated efforts we can provide the encore opportunities that our citizens desire — going from talk to action. We’ll all be richer for it. And thank you for your thoughtful comment.