When Tom Hendershot retired at 55 after more than 30 years in law enforcement and corporate security, going back to work wasn’t on his radar. With his newfound free time, the Grand Rapids, Mich., resident pursued his passion for dinosaurs in earnest. He became a fossil hunter in the badlands of Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota, selling bones he uncovered to museums throughout the West. But before long, he began thinking about transitioning his retirement hobby into a business. “I realized from my contacts with museums that there was a lack of good, high-quality imagery of dinosaurs,” he said. “So I said, I wonder if that’s a market opportunity?” 

He launched a firm, Antiquities Company, and hired an illustrator experienced in drawing dinosaurs to develop a line of realistic, highly detailed dinosaur posters for museum shops, selling them at the Smithsonian and the Chicago Field Museum. With the help of a paleontologist, he also built a traveling museum exhibit on the Ice Age that has been shown in North Carolina and Michigan, and he is completing another on dinosaurs. 

Now 71, he’s thrilled with his new career. “When I’m gone, the memory of kids’ visits to a museum may create some lasting effect on mankind that I’ll never know about,” he said. “It’ll be their contribution that they leave, and I’ll have had some kind of connection to that. It’s about leaving a legacy.”

Hendershot exemplifies a new and growing trend of older Americans embracing unconventional retirements. As Baby Boomers reach the end of their traditional careers, longer life spans and long-term demographic changes are leaving them with more time and energy, and, for some, the financial need for more work. Many are taking up new careers, launching businesses, working part time, and volunteering. And an entire industry of organizations and businesses has emerged to help them accomplish it.

A Shift a Long Time Coming

Several factors are driving the movement away from traditional retirement—one of the biggest being financial, owing to the phasing out of employer-provided pensions and the inability for most people to depend on Social Security. 

“Boomers need to self-fund an increasingly larger portion of their retirement than previous generations did,” said Catherine Collinson, president of the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. “Also, life expectancies are longer than they were for our grandparents’ generation.” A healthy, upper-middle-class couple aged 65 today have a 43 percent chance that one or both of them will live to see 95.

Not only are the years longer, but people are healthier. In the 1950s and ’60s, manufacturing and farming jobs were far more common. “Today, it’s information services and social services, or jobs in hospitals, health care, education,” said Chris Farrell, author of Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community, and the Good Life. “It’s a lot easier to be working in a medical diagnostics office than in a coal mine. It’s also a lot cheaper to start your own business. People can work out of their home because of the internet.” 

Workers today are also better educated than they were in the past, leaving them with a desire to seek personal fulfillment and use their minds later in life. “For people who’ve had professional careers, they continue to work because of identity issues—they’ve been very invested in their careers,” said Kathleen Christensen, director of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Working Longer program. “This is how they see themselves—a lawyer, a doctor, an academic, and they’re not willing to give up that identity so easily.” 

That’s the case with Gail Dinter-Gottlieb, 71, a Brooklyn-based former molecular biologist and university president. For the past four years, she has been putting her fundraising experience to work as a consultant and a grant writer—including for filmmaker Mira Nair’s education and microfinance charity, the Maisha Foundation. She’s also learned Spanish, French, and Chinese and written two murder mysteries. “I don’t have to be doing this right now,” she said. “I do it more for my interest and stimulation than because I need it financially.”

The Encore Years

Of course, for many Boomers, working in retirement is a financial necessity. Many Americans have simply not saved enough and see working longer as a way to stave off having to radically cut back on their standard of living. Other Boomers with modestly sized retirement accounts are mindful that they do not want to draw down their savings too fast, and so they continue working in order to provide some additional financial flexibility and freedom. 

But increasingly, Boomers say they pursue employment because the idea of idling away their last 30 years is distinctly unappealing. Sixty-five percent of Boomers plan to work past 65, according to the 2014 TransAmerica Retirement Survey.

When Conan O’Brien’s show moved from New York City to Los Angeles in 2009, its costume designer, Deborah Shaw, then 55, decided not to follow. After her 30-year career in show business, she began thinking of doing something more service oriented in criminal justice. She started volunteering through the Horticultural Society of New York, teaching horticulture at New York City’s Rikers Island jail. After a year of volunteering, she was hired as a horticultural therapist in 2011, teaching botany, gardening, nutrition, and job readiness. Now 60, she teaches at the jail as well as at a center in Brooklyn for former homeless people suffering from mental illness. 

Even though she now earns in a month what she used to earn in a day, she said, “It is important to me I get paid, because I consider this to be my current career. It’s not just a hobby or something I dabble in.” But she doesn’t work for the money. “It’s extremely rewarding. I can’t emphasize that enough,” she said. “These are people who’ve never really spent time outside or had any connection with the natural world, and to see somebody plant a seed in March in the greenhouse and eat that tomato in August is—I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s very, very exciting.”

A New Economy

Corporate America is slowly realizing the opportunities made possible by the unretirement trend. Companies like Intel and IBM offer programs for older workers to transition out of retirement and back into the workplace. Others, like Michelin, have programs that enlist retirees to help train new employees or volunteer in the local communities tutoring children.

New businesses and organizations are also popping up to serve the needs of this new kind of retiree. In 2009, Encore.org, an organization whose mission is to transform aging in the United States, launched a fellowship program to help private-sector workers make a shift to nonprofits. It also runs the Purpose Prize, which awards $100,000 to social entrepreneurs over 60. In 2013, AARP launched the Life Reimagined Institute, which helps older Americans navigate personal and career transitions. ReServe, launched in 2005, matches those 55 and over with organizations needing their expertise, and RetirementJobs.com, a job board listing 30,000 jobs nationwide for workers 50 and over, offers companies the opportunity to show their commitment to older workers by becoming a Certified Age Friendly Employer. “Age bias is a reality in the American workplace,” said RetirementJobs CEO Tim Driver, “so we’re trying to winnow down the employers on our website to those looking to attract and retain this cohort.”

Driver says mature workers are attractive to employers because they have low turnover and can relate to and deal with older customers. Banks like to hire older customer-interfacing employees, he said, because bank branches are typically visited by people over 50. Such customer service and retail jobs are also appealing to older workers because they are often part time. 

Steve Bradley, head of recruiting services at Citizens Bank, which began posting all its job listings on RetirementJobs.com last year, said, “When we put a job out there, we’re looking for the most qualified person to do the job. We don’t target the age worker for a specific job. [But older workers] have a lot of experience, and they bring a lot of value. They’re very committed, and their work ethic is strong.”

These unconventional retirees feel the benefit, too. “My work keeps my mind sharp,” said Hendershot, the dinosaur entrepreneur. “It makes me a more vital human being.”

Source: The Week