Bridging the Gap to an Encore Career

After decades in real estate, Dave Hughes was ready for his encore career. He applied for jobs at nonprofit organizations near his new home in eastern Oregon, hoping to capitalize on his years of church volunteer work. He got no offers.

"We needed the additional income," he says. "My wife told me, 'Get a job now.'" So Hughes took a three-month job at the local Walmart, which led to a promotion to receiving manager.

After 18 months at Walmart, Hughes was hired -- at age 56 -- as the director of Agape House, a faith-based social services agency that provides food, clothing and other services to help people break the cycle of homelessness.

Hughes' transition to a purpose-driven encore career wasn't fast or easy, but it was typical, requiring not only determination, but a way to cover expenses during the year or two often needed to make a late-career switch.

Those transition expenses -- for the time needed to explore options, take courses or get certified, build networks and, of course, search for and land a job -- appear to be discouraging millions of people from switching to encore careers, post-midlife jobs in which they can put their talents and experience to work for the greater good. For many people, five, 10 or 15 more years of work at something they love, perhaps on a more flexible schedule, may be a better option, personally and financially, than hanging on to their current jobs.

A new survey by the MetLife Foundation and Civic Ventures and conducted by Penn Schoen Berland estimates that 31 million people between ages 44 and 70 are interested in encore careers. But 40 percent of them say they haven't made the switch yet because they aren't secure enough financially.

They have reason to be concerned. More than two-thirds of those already in encore careers say their transitions included periods in which they earned significantly less than in their previous jobs -- or nothing at all. For three-quarters of those, the income gap lasted more than six months; one-third had a gap of more than two years.

Hughes and the other nine million people in the U.S. who've managed to make the switch to encore careers represent a wealth of talent and experience for schools, nonprofit organizations, public agencies and social ventures. It's in the national interest to help others get through the difficult transition so they can make their own contributions.

A viable financial plan starts with the recognition that career transitions are temporary and that absorbing a short-term reduction in income -- by drawing on savings, cutting expenses, relying on a spouse or other measures -- can be a smart move if it leads to a satisfying new stage of work.


Saving for the transition in what might be called an "Individual Purpose Account" can help cushion the financial blow. So-called "529" college savings accounts are not just for kids - older adults can use them for their own education expenses, too. Some brokerages and insurance companies are creating flexible income-planning and annuity products to bridge the income gap. Legislators have proposed tax-advantaged savings vehicles such as Lifelong Learning Accounts or LiLA's, modeled on a pilot program at IBM.

Student financial aid needs reform, to make loans and grants available for the short-term and part-time career training programs that encore career seekers generally favor. Short-term "encore fellowships," such as those now offered by a few corporations, can ease the way to more permanent nonprofit or public employment. Intel Corp., for example, offers all its retirement-eligible employees in the U.S. the chance to apply for paid, yearlong assignments in community organizations. Similar encore fellowship programs are sprouting up around the country.

Changes in Social Security -- clarifying existing benefit options and creating new flexibility in starting and stopping the benefits -- could make it easier to use Social Security as an income support for encore career transitions, while preserving and strengthening its role in providing late-life financial security. More people need to know that even relatively modest levels of continued income can allow them to delay their Social Security claims, allow their savings and investments to grow, and require those assets to cover fewer years, improving their lifetime financial security.

These and other ways to bridge the gap to an encore career can deliver a big payoff. Dave Hughes has helped Agape House expand its programs for 10 years now -- raising funds, brokering partnerships, and helping thousands of people in financial trouble.

As working longer increasingly becomes the norm, "you're on your own" is not an adequate response for all those who want to make a difference and a living. New approaches and small investments in midlife transitions can help millions of people secure their own financial futures so they can help others in their encore careers.