Working Into Your 70s: A Smart Retirement Move

US News

In 2009, Pamela Harris, then 61, realized the future she'd anticipated just a few years earlier was going to be different than she'd thought. For one thing, Harris still got tremendous satisfaction from her law practice. For another, the financial meltdown had eaten into her profits and her investments along with everyone else's. "It became clear I was going to have to rethink," says Harris, who lives in Falcon Heights, Minn. Rethink she did. Today Harris is pursuing a master's degree in library and information science at St. Catherine University, something she'd always dreamed of doing, while practicing full time. In three years, at 67, she figures she'll have a wealth of ways to work at least part time into her 70s. "Some friends think [pursuing a library science degree] is a ridiculous idea," she admits. "I have decided that these are people with less imagination than I had thought."

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It doesn't take much imagination to see that retirement at age 65 is increasingly a nonstarter. Home values have plunged in city after city; since the housing crash began, prices have dropped as much as 70 percent in Phoenix, for example, and up to 65 percent in Miami. While the stock market has bounced back from its low point in 2009, the S&P 500 in mid-September was still a painful 23 percent below its 2007 peak. Meanwhile, Social Security will replace just 30 percent of the typical worker's pre-retirement income by 2030, compared with 39 percent in 2000. Fully half of Americans say they're not confident they've saved enough for retirement, up from 29 percent in 2007, an annual survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute reveals. Consider: To be reasonably sure of being able just to cover their health insurance premiums and out-of-pocket expenses once they start Medicare coverage, a married couple, by one projection, will need a healthcare kitty of $231,000 to $287,000.

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It's little wonder that more people are working into their 70s (or planning to). "The old vision of leisure-based retirement is yesterday's conversation," says Marci Alboher, vice president of Civic Ventures, a nonprofit think tank in San Francisco dedicated to baby boomer issues. "The new conversation is, how are we going to work in those years?" One of the smartest retirement investments you can make these days may be to extend your own working shelf life.

Mid-career folks can begin by imagining a job they might actually want to do into their 70s, bearing in mind that what was entirely satisfying during their wealth-building 30s may feel empty in the senior years. "As people get older, they care more about how they're spending their time, and their motivation changes," says Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. Encore Careers (www.encore.org), an online publication from Civic Ventures focused on meaningful later-stage work, and AARP (www.aarp.org/work) both offer extensive advice and resources to people over 50 figuring out their next steps.

"I realized I wanted to give back to the community," says Ed Jones of Tempe, Ariz., 62, who took part in a job-training program for older workers at Gateway Community College in Phoenix. In 2009, Jones left Safeway, where he'd worked in training and management, then tried unsuccessfully to come back out of retirement in 2010 after his real estate investments and 401(k) went south. Dozens of résumés for similar management positions had produced no leads. Taking career and personality assessments helped him think of unexpected ways he could use his experience in organization and training, and led him to an unpaid internship at a nonprofit providing health, wellness, and other support programs to residents of central Arizona. He developed a proposal for a resource center to help clients find employment, and has been hired as a contractor to work on grant applications and health services initiatives while waiting for funding for the center to come through. "This has opened up a whole new area for me, in work that I can imagine doing either within an organization or maybe eventually as my own business," Jones says.

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Evaluate, too, the environment you think you'll prefer long term. "Many of my clients move from full-time employment to consulting" when they realize they want to do the same tasks but on their own terms, says Los Angeles executive management coach Brenda Eddy. She advises clients to scout out projects they could do for their employer on an independent basis after they leave. Landing and accomplishing an assignment "establishes you as the go-to person for project work" and should help you sell yourself to other clients.

Senior-friendly bosses. Anita Porter started working for Scripps Health in San Diego as a nurse's aide in 1964. Now 72 and a surgery scheduler, she is taking advantage of the company's phased retirement program, which lets workers reduce their hours while keeping their health coverage. Porter has cut back to three days a week and hopes to stay on for a while. "Working keeps me young," she says. "I'm hoping to make it to 50 years."

This year, Scripps Health topped AARP's "Best Employers for Workers Over 50" list, which recognizes companies offering such programs as flexible hours, wellness classes, continuing training, and an alumni network for retirees that keeps them updated on events and opportunities. "People don't always want to stay fully retired," says Vic Buzachero, corporate senior vice president for innovation, human resources, and performance management at Scripps Health. "We view our retirees as potential future employees as well as recruiters of friends and family members." Finding work at a similarly progressive company as a younger worker--or lobbying for innovation where you are--can help cement your employability later.

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It's no coincidence that nearly half of this year's AARP winners are healthcare companies; health is one of several industries experiencing a shortage of skilled labor. Because such industries tend to be more creative and open-minded in attracting and retaining talent, they're a good bet for older employees looking for new ways to work. Besides healthcare, fields that are facing shortages now, or expect to, include nonprofit management; primary, secondary, and special education; social services such as child care and assistance for the elderly; engineering; software development; and library science.

Like Ed Jones, many people are finding their way into these fields via a training program tailored for older workers. Civic Ventures has teamed up with the MetLife Foundation and Deerbrook Charitable Trust to provide grants to 40 community colleges around the country for programs aimed at transitioning experienced workers to new careers in one of five areas with potential: education, health, social services, nonprofit, and "green" jobs focused on the environment. "These are people who want something that's not going to take a long time, that's fast-tracked," says Judy Goggin, vice president of Civic Ventures.

Some programs serve more as entryways to a new field. Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, N.C., for example, provides executives transitioning from the corporate to the nonprofit sector with career coaching and peer networking. Others offer coursework leading to certificates--in early childhood education or caregiving, say. (To learn more about these programs, visit http://www.encore.org/learn/colleges/overview.) Similarly, the American Association of Community Colleges' Plus-50 initiative (http://plus50.aacc.nche.edu) has helped 32 colleges launch learning opportunities and workforce training programs; surveys of the 15,000 students who have so far taken these courses show that 73 percent believe they've helped them land a job.

The $50 Human Services Paraprofessional Training Program that Ed Jones took included 40 classroom hours exposing students to opportunities in professions short of workers plus 80 hours of unpaid field experience with companies that had made in-class presentations. "Before, employers saw I spent 34 years with Safeway and threw my résumé in the trash," Jones says. "Now I have a certificate, all these hours of field experience, and grant writing under my belt."

For-profit companies are also popping up to help older career switchers. Starting in fall 2012, the Encore Career Institute, a Silicon Valley technology start-up working with the University of California-Los Angeles extension, will offer online assessments, counseling, networking help, and one-year certification programs in 17 fields, including teaching, nonprofit management, healthcare management and leadership, college counseling, and financial services. The one-year online programs, which will cost $8,000 to $10,000, are specifically designed for baby boomers, a group vastly underappreciated by employers, says CEO Steve Poizner. "Turning around the impression that people over a certain age have no economic value is potentially the next civil rights battle," he says.

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The long view. A good way for younger workers to invest in their future value is to start preparing early for self-employment. In 2009, nearly 1 in 5 workers over 65 was self-employed, compared with about 10 percent of workers overall, and those numbers are apt to keep growing. Paradoxically, one of the best routes is to spend a few years with a corporate behemoth. "You'll have a lot more credibility when you go out on your own if you have even two years at a GE or an IBM or a Disney," says Eddy, the management coach. Greater expertise, too. She recommends scouting around at the office for self-contained projects to tackle--a strategic marketing analysis, a risk assessment, a training manual--that no one has had time to take on. And become active in your professional organizations. "If you're an active committee member from the age of 40," she says, "your options will be a lot better by the time you're 60."

Taking the long view at mid-career might well suggest a time-out for more education. Since 1987, the number of graduate students over 40 has doubled, according to estimates by the Council of Graduate Schools. More-educated workers are more likely to stay in the workforce longer, according to census data analyzed by the Employee Benefit Research Institute. So the money you spend and the income you sacrifice may be restored in years of additional wages. When San Francisco Bay Area newspaper reporter Rachele Kanigel decided in her late 30s that she'd like to switch to college teaching, she relocated her family across the country for a one-year master's degree program at Columbia University. Today, at age 50, she's a full-time professor at San Francisco State. "Reporting is a younger person's career," she says. "This seemed like a good profession to grow old in."

Before going back for a degree, though, you might consider whether there are shortcuts to the credentials you're seeking. More than 200 nursing programs in the country offer accelerated RN training lasting 11 to 18 months for people who hold bachelor's degrees, for instance; standard programs typically take two to four years. The Career Switchers program offered at 23 community colleges in Virginia allows college grads with five years of work experience to earn provisional teaching credentials in just 16 weeks. "You want the best academic credential you can get, but you don't necessarily need an M.B.A.," says Eddy. Even a several-week executive education program at Harvard Business School, for example, gains you a spot in the alumni association in your region. Those connections can pay off for decades to come.

Perhaps the biggest impact of the changed working landscape will be felt by the young people just entering the workforce. They'll clearly need to be ready for frequent changes in direction--no more putting the career on cruise control. "In driver's ed, they told us to look right in front of us, but also scan the horizon for what's down the road," says Kanigel. It was her experience--and career experts agree--that actively using "that same kind of close, medium, and far vision" is the key to negotiating all curves ahead.

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