Starting Over: Why The ‘Encore Career’ Is The New First Job

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When the term “encore career” was first coined in 2009 by CEO and founder Marc Freedman, the idea of a second career — one that starts later in life and often has a more personally fulfilling mission — was mostly financially-fueled. At that point, the economy was trying to find its footing after the collapse just a few years before, and Boomers were mostly either opting for later retirement, or leaping back into the job market because they had to, not because they wanted to. 401ks had shrunk, savings had dwindled, and going back to work was the only option for many.

Fast forward a few years, and the economy is bouncing back. Retirement is becoming a much more viable option for many Boomers; in a recent Gallup poll, two-thirds of the oldest boomers have already left the job market. The retirement rate is so rapid, some economists are worried that their quick exit might have an extremely negative impact on the finances of the global economy. But in spite of fears of high retirement, many individuals of retirement-age are choosing to keep working — and they’re working on the things they really care about.

“Encore careers are a form of practical idealism,” said Freedman in a 2011 interview. “In the past, when you hit 50 or 60 you thought about how you might volunteer. But now with people working longer, we see a hybrid need for income, renewal, and finding meaning through work.”

Much like creative entrepreneurs and freelancers of all demographics, the actual numbers remain a little fuzzy, largely because they’ve simply never been studied before. Still, we can get some idea of what’s happening from some of the research that’s been conducted.

Forbes reports that more than 4.5 million Americans between the ages of 50 and 70 are currently engaged in some form of “encore” career, and another 31 million would like to, according to the LA Times. In the last year, participation in the workforce among the 65+ crowd has actually increased slightly. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is reporting higher and higher numbers of self-employed individuals over 65. And most of them, at least according to some reports, are doing it solely because they want to.

“According to The Boomer Report,” writes Jane Robinson of  Moxy Marketplace, “…59% of boomers chose to be independent and just 23% said job loss was a reason for selecting that path. The same report indicated that boomers enjoy independence because they like being challenged and motivated (61%), making an impact (56%) and being their own boss (60%). Further, for boomers, flexibility (79%) and doing what they like (77%) are more important than money.”

If you didn’t know better, you’d probably think that report was talking about Millennials. But instead, what the numbers of Boomers entering into encore careers really demonstrates is that many workers of all ages are looking to be more creatively fulfilled and independent in our work. Our own Creative Jobs Report found the same thing — that “creativity is important to the majority (57%) of employed U.S. adults age 65 and older, and that more than a third strongly agree they don’t plan on retiring because they enjoy their career.

If encore careers really are about finding meaning and personal renewal, it’s no surprise that many older individuals are turning their one-time hobbies into actual modes of income. Baby Boomers have a strong presence on Etsy, they’re finding more and more grants, fellowships, and other opportunities available to them, and they’re even going back to college at higher rates than in the past.

Boomers are also the first older generation to have access to and a firm grasp of emerging technologies. According to the Houston Chronicle, one large driver behind the surge of encore careers is simply that it’s easier than ever for retirees to start their own businesses.

“It’s become easier technologically and geographically to do this at older ages,” research and policy director Dane Stangler told the paper. “We’ll see continued higher rates of entrepreneurship because of these demographic trends.”

We might not have great numbers on exactly how much these encore careers are influencing the job market or the economy at large, but if other kinds of freelance and creative part-time businesses are any indication, it’s substantial. Even part-time creative work has been found to add billions to the overall economy, providing additional income to those who run the businesses, as well as benefits to their community and tax-base at large. Encore careers might not solve the problem of rapid retirement, but the entrepreneurial spirit of the Boomers is definitely providing a benefit to the workforce.

Hanna Brooks Olsen FOLLOW >

Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.