06/18/2008 04:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Bill Gates Deserves an Encore

At age 52, computer pioneer Bill Gates will leave his day job June 27 as head of Microsoft to work full-time on global health and education issues at his foundation. It won't be retirement, he's said, "It's a reordering of my priorities."

Once again the world's richest man is on the cutting edge of a big change in American life. The vast majority of the nation's 78 million baby boomers plan to work beyond traditional retirement age, and a new survey released today finds that half of all Americans 44 to 70 want to reorder their priorities as Gates has: they are looking for work that combines income with personal meaning and social impact.

With decades of healthy life expectancy that their parents didn't have, boomers have made it clear that they want to use their hard-won skills and experience to stay active, productive and challenged in the second half of life. A 2005 MetLife Foundation/Civic Ventures survey found that half of all Americans 50 to 70 wanted work that helps others.

Three years later, we have proof for the first time that it wasn't just talk. This latest survey finds that an unexpectedly large number of people between 44 and 70 have already moved from midlife jobs into "encore careers," working for the greater good.

With few incentives from business or government, between 6.5 and 9 percent of them are doing work society needs done. That's 5.3 to 8.4 million new workers in education, health care, government, other nonprofit groups and businesses that serve a public good.
The best news: Beyond the millions already in encore careers, tens of millions want them, and the youngest boomers show the strongest desire. The implications are enormous. These boomers represent a huge potential resource pool for just the fields that now face major labor shortages.

So what's stopping boomers from making the leap? Six in 10 worry they won't find the right kind of work. Most, particularly younger boomers, cite concerns about income, benefits and flexibility. Some worry they'll have trouble getting used to less status and seniority or about retraining for new skills and technology.

But the survey reports that the majority of those in encore careers haven't encountered these difficulties. Instead, most report that they find their jobs satisfying and know they are making a difference. Most say they have the income and benefits they need. And, while most in encore careers work full-time, they say they have the flexibility they need.

It's clear that the meaning of retirement is changing -- from destination to prelude, from a halt to a pause for rest and rejuvenation. The pull to leisure once encouraged people to leave the workforce as early as possible, but now the pull to meaningful work, with reasonable salary and benefits, may be encouraging people to stay as long as possible.

To help speed this trend, policies must change to make health care affordable, end financial penalties for continuing to work, provider easier access to retraining and education, along with online resources to help people find the right niche. Many, just like Bill Gates, seem to be looking not to slow down but to accelerate, to pour it on for something they believe in. Society can only benefit by doing everything possible to clear their path.