CHICAGO -- Here go the baby boomers again, reinventing themselves and bucking tradition as they bear down on retirement.
This time they're leading a push into so-called encore careers – paid work that combines personal meaning with social purpose – in their 50s and 60s.
As many as 9 million people ages 44 to 70 already are in such careers as the second or third acts of their working lives, according to nonprofit think tank Encore.org.
But that number is poised to multiply as many boomers and others take steps to combine making a living with making a difference. Another 31 million older workers are interested in finding encore careers, based on a 2011 survey by the nonprofit.
A mixture of longer lifespans, layoffs, shifting cultural attitudes and financial realities is causing this growing urge among over-50s to seek out more purposeful work. Sometimes it's just an itch to do something more purposeful in retirements that can now last for three decades, while still pulling in needed income.
The demographics of 78 million baby boomers should ensure that this careers shift accelerates, says Encore.org vice president Marci Alboher.
"This trend has the potential to be a new social norm much the way that the dream of the golden years, of a leisure-based retirement, was an aspiration for the generation before," she says.
Alboher, whose soon-to-be-released "The Encore Career Handbook" is an invaluable resource for older workers looking for purposeful career alternatives, discussed the phenomenon in an interview. Here are edited excerpts:
Q: What steps can be taken to lay the groundwork for an encore career?
A: Start by thinking about your own interests. What would you want to do if you weren't doing what you've been doing for the last 20 or 30 years? What issues matter enough that you would want to volunteer your time or talents if you knew you could make a difference? Let yourself dream a little.
Identify people who have reinvented themselves in a way that's helping their community or the world. Make a coffee date with one of them and ask how they made the transition. You might find something that resonates with you.
Q: What fields offer the most plentiful opportunities for meaningful work?
Health care is really the No. 1 field to look at in terms of both needs and opportunities. With an aging population and the changes that are coming in our health care system, there are needs and opportunities for all kinds of work whether you have a medical orientation in your background or just want to help people.
Q: How useful are career coaches and how much do they cost?
A: They can help if you're stuck and think you could benefit from working one-on-one with someone and being held accountable. But this professional help doesn't come cheap. Rates can range from $80 to $90 an hour to more than $200 an hour.
Q: Do these careers usually involve a big drop in income?
A: Not necessarily.
If the work sounds altruistic in some way, most people assume they'll be making less money. For people coming from high-level jobs in the for-profit sector, they very well may be facing a cut in pay. But for people whose primary career was focused in the social purpose arena – at a nonprofit, or in social work or education, where money is not the main motivator – many of these encore reinventions don't involve a pay cut at all.
Q: How big a barrier is age discrimination?
A: It exists. But if you feel like your age is getting in the way of what you want to do, it could be simply that you don't have the proper skills for what you're interviewing for. And that could be related to the fact you haven't brushed up your skills in the last 20 or 30 years.
I always encourage people to think about what can they do to make sure that their skills are current and that they're presenting properly.
And take a close look at organizations you are thinking about working with. Do you see a welcoming and diverse workplace that values people of all ages? If not, consider looking someplace else where you'll be able to thrive and your experience will be valued.
Q: How feasible is it to launch your own business with a social purpose?
A: The social entrepreneurship sector – businesses that have a social mission as well as a financial bottom line – is really growing. There's a very high interest in entrepreneurship among older workers.
There are pros and cons. Being your own boss can give you more control over your life. And it can be a good fit for people who are tired of having a manager.
But most people who start a business, especially one designed to do some good in the world, find that they are working harder than ever. And you do have lots of bosses, even as an entrepreneur – your clients, your funders.
Before rushing to start your own thing, consider offering your skills to another encore entrepreneur and also take a look at freelancing or self-employment. Those may be ways to have more control and autonomy, while still having an impact -- and keeping the risk down somewhat.