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The Second Act

By Melanie Moffett
In Center Block
Mar 31st, 2014
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Baby Boomers Find New Careers at Mid-Life
by Angela Genusa

Former school teacher Lauren Lancaster of West Monroe had always imagined what retirement would be like. “I thought that I would go to the luncheons at the church, do some volunteer work, read and clean up my house, maybe work in my yard, and have a leisurely quiet time.”

However, Lancaster’s vision was not meant to be. One day three years ago, after she had put in more than three decades as a teacher, she received a phone call from a friend who invited her to help launch a learning service company now called Learning Rx. The job offer turned out to be not only a prescription for success for the company, which she co-founded with her friend, but also a second career for Lancaster, who is busier and more active than ever at 57. “I love it like this,” she says.

Lancaster is not alone. As many as 9 million people ages 44 to 70 are in encore careers—and 31 million more are interested in joining them, according to 2012 research from MetLife Foundation and Encore.org. Thousands of Baby Boomers in Northeast Louisiana like Lancaster are working in second careers in fields of all types.

“You’re never too old to start again,” says Rosalynn Pogue, director of the Office of Career Connections at the University of Louisiana – Monroe. “If you do it correctly, it will be one of the most rewarding things you’ll ever do.”

An increasing number of older students at local colleges and universities illustrates this trend. At ULM, more than 330 students (4 percent of the student body) age 35 and older returned to the classroom in 2013 to earn degrees or certifications in a new field. At Louisiana Delta Community College, 511 students (13 percent of the student body) between 35 and 50 years old are seeking new degrees or certifications. And these figures do not include the thousands of others who are currently working in encore careers who did not return to college or receive additional certifications to take up a second career at mid-life.

Nell Calloway, 63, is someone who made a mid-life transition from being an OB/GYN nurse to becoming executive director of the Chennault Aviation and Military Museum in Monroe. She is now in her sixth year at the museum. “Retirement is not a word in my vocabulary,” she says. Calloway spent nearly 17 years working as an OB/GYN nurse before she was appointed as director of the museum.

There are many reasons for renewed interest and participation in second careers by Baby Boomers, including the economic downturn of recent years, longer working lives, personal financial necessity and goals, an interest in helping younger generations, and a desire to contribute to the community. According to a study by Encore.org, those who are not already retired say they plan to work to an average of 65.8 years old, 2.1 years longer than they thought they would before the downturn. People currently in encore careers expect to work even longer, to 66.5 years old on average. Those interested in second careers expect to work until 66.2 years on average and plan on working 23.4 hours per week for 8.5 years in their encore careers. Understanding the benefits of postponing Social Security changes people’s views about working longer. Just 14 percent of people interested in encore careers indicated that they plan to wait until age 70 to start collecting Social Security benefits. But once they learned that postponing their claims would result in larger monthly benefit checks for life, three in five (62 percent) said they would consider working longer. Another study by Encore.org and Participant Media, found that people 50 and older are interested in helping younger generations.

Pogue says that most of the time, the people that she sees in her office at ULM for career counseling at mid-life have spent many years in one position or career that they earned a degree in at a young age and are now ready for a change. “At some some point, you feel like ‘I’ve reached my goal.’ There are some people at that point in and they’re like ‘Now what?’ They find no joy in their career anymore because they’ve achieved their goals and now they’re looking to do something different.”

Lancaster cites a love of learning as one of the reasons for starting a second career. “If you don’t accept being a learner and a life-long learner, you’re going to be left behind,” she says. “Your frustrations will be great if you don’t keep up with technology to a certain point.” She also made the choice to become an entrepreneur in mid-life for financial reasons. “It’s nice to have an extra income on top of the retirement (pay).”

Robert Kemp, 59, has been an associate professor of Pharmacy Administration at ULM for the last four years. He chose to return to academics after many years of working in the pharmaceutical industry. “I had been through so many changes in terms of having a number of bosses and being moved from product to product that I just needed to get off the corporate treadmill for a while. And I had this longing to get back to teaching.”

Unlike many other Boomers, though, Kemp has never made any long-term commitment to any particular career because of the nature of the pharmaceutical industry. He will be making another move soon because the program he works in at ULM is being discontinued as of this summer. This is nothing new for Kemp, however. “What makes me different from other people is from the beginning of my career, I was on term-limited projects. When I went into the pharmaceutical industry, I worked on projects that had a beginning, a middle, and an end. What most people, especially around here, expect is to go to a job and hold it for a long period of time. They find moving amongst jobs to be rather traumatic, whereas for me, that’s normal. Until I came to Monroe, I never had a job that was going to be a long-term commitment. Even though I worked in pharmaceutical companies, I assumed what I did was going to change within the next couple of years and I would have to leave one job or the next.” Headhunters call Kemp all the time. “I get three or four every day asking me if I’m interested in a position, because once you’ve been willing to move from one position to the next, the word gets out. It’s a fluid industry and they need people who can adapt.”

Kemp’s only concern at the age of 59 is that employers might think that someone of his age is unwilling or unable to adapt and move. “I don’t think like I’m 59. I’ve been on the move for quite a while.”

For people interested in pursuing second careers, Pogue says the biggest thing to be aware of is that doing so can take a lot of legwork, time, patience, research, networking, and money to find the right place. ULM’s Office of Career Connections works with employers, both locally and nationally, to help people find the internship or full-time job best suited to their capabilities and schedules. The department works with students and alumni on resume preparation, interview skills, and job search resources. The Office of Career Connections hosts career fairs, workshops, and other career events that offer students and alumni networking and interviewing opportunities with regional and major corporations. It also publicizes internships and full-time job positions on its web site that students and alumni can review at any time.

The Office of Career Connections offers current and former students a job assessment tool called Focus, an online career and education and planning system. “One of the things you need to assess is your likes and dislikes,” Pogue says. “A great way to research careers and network is to volunteer, moonlight or ‘job shadow’ someone in a career that you think you might enjoy going into.” Networking is a daily activity, she says. “If you’re interesting in a certain career and know someone who knows someone, talk to them and ask them what are the challenge, rewards, work climate, pay, additional educational training you might need.”

Also look at fields where there is healthy job growth, Pogue says, by reading the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook. The most sought-after second degrees and certifications at ULM with high rates of job growth are in education, computer technology, business, and health care.

“Yes, look at going back to school,” Pogue says. “You will have to check your finances, and work your budget and your time. But if you make those sacrifices and stick with it, you can do this, you can get that degree.” Again—patience, she advises. “If you do the legwork, and take the time to do it correctly, it can be most rewarding.”

Career fulfillment knows no age, says Baby Boomers like Calloway. She finds inspiration in a line from a letter her grandfather, General Claire Chennault, wrote to his brother when he himself was changing careers in his 40s: “Life finds its purpose in accomplishment.” She says, “I feel like as long as I can accomplish things, my life has a lot of purpose.”