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Interview: The Power of Encore Careers


The growing number of older workers isn’t due simply to needing work: many want to stay part of the labour force.

As Marc Freedman pointed out In The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife (PublicAffairs), people in their 50s and 60s today are looking at a 30-year retirement. He argued it is time to put new social structures in place to engage aging workers in "encore" or second careers that provide personal meaning, as well as a pay cheque and social purpose.

But some argue that encore careers are more about meeting the economic needs of society.

So what do encore careers mean to the over-60s?

New research by Mary Simpson of the University of Waikato and colleagues sheds light on the experience of workers aged 55 to 84 years. The findings show encore careers hold a different meaning for each person.

The research was published in the journal Work, Employment and Society (June 2012).

AHB reached Dr. Simpson in Hamilton, New Zealand.

Ruth Dempsey: The number of older people in the workforce has jumped in New Zealand since compulsory retirement was abolished in 1998. Why is that?

Mary Simpson: Two reasons spring to mind. First, many people reach 65 years of age and want to continue working, whether in full-or part-time work. Second, with the removal of the formal barrier, compulsory retirement, these people are now able to carry on in their existing work or take up different roles in the workforce.

RD: So how do you describe encore careers?

MS: For the purposes of the study, we defined encore careers as paid or unpaid work conducted within a formal organization. The encore work is different from the worker’s previous employment and seen as meaningful by the worker.

We also applied the concept to workers aged 55 and older engaged in paid or voluntary encore positions.

RD: Some of the participants saw encore careers as job opportunities.

MS: That’s right. So workers talked about the benefits of being able to use existing skills to earn money to help family or save for an overseas trip.

Older workers also saw encore careers as way to "keep up-to-date" with current practices.

RD: Others viewed encore careers as a path to self-actualization, a way to boost their identity . . .

MS: To say "boost their identity" doesn’t quite capture the depth of feeling these older adults held when speaking of their work.

They talked about a sense of achievement, "giving back" and increasing self-worth through their encore careers.

RD: Some even talked about having meaningful work for the first time.

MS: Yes, this sentiment was expressed often by women who had had careers in looking after others, although several men mentioned this as well.

RD: The team interviewed managers from business, social service and community-based organizations. How did they view encore workers?

MS: Managers spoke of encore workers as desirable because of their experience, flexibility and the sometime calming influence they brought to the workplace.

Managers tended to notice the potential utility in encore workers values, that is, what it meant for the organization. For example, one manager reported that encore workers were "reflecting on values, the meaning of life and often quite happy to work for organizations… [with] a values base".

However, some managers drew on ageist stereotypes in their descriptions and expectations of older workers. "We have no interest in people who won’t grow," one said.

Both managers and workers identified challenges in organizational structures and processes, for example, in the recruitment process writing a CV and managing job interviews. One former forestry worker talked about the inability to "sell" himself.

The findings showed encore workers rather than organizations were largely held responsible for currency and up-grading.

RD: There was a difference in how men and women viewed encore careers . . .

MS: The difference was more complex than simply between men and women. Women and older men (over 65 years of age) tended to focus on the meaningful aspects of encore careers, those that lead to self-fulfillment and enhanced identity.

Younger men (55 to 60 years of age), on the other hand, tended to focus on the productive and useful aspects of encore careers, those aspects that use experience, maintain currency and provide the necessities of life.

RD: You argue encore careers can be a trap. How so?

MS: Encore careers become a trap when work becomes a "must" for older adults, and society expects older people to remain in the workplace.

Older adults need to be able to choose not have "employment" at the center of their lives. Other dimensions of life are important and relevant for elders. In other words, there is the danger that people are no longer allowed to be simply old or retired.

RD: Debates about the abilities and rights of aging workers are on the rise today. Looking ahead, how do you see encore careers?

MS: Encore careers have the potential to both enhance and diminish the contribution of elders in paid and unpaid roles.

So, if encore careers are seen as a "luxury" or at the other extreme a "must" for older adults, then elders are at risk on not being seen as valued contributors to society.

If, on the other hand, encore careers are positioned as an opportunity for the utilization of valued experience and for personal growth, then they have the potential to enhance the contribution of elders within the broader community.