The picture of retirement has changed drastically. "We absolutely cannot ignore the financial aspect. We are living longer and there is this incredible fear of outliving our money," says Kerry Hannon, author of Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work that Keeps You Happy and Healthy … and Pays the Bills.
"So the more you can continue to contribute and pay your own way and not dip into those retirement accounts, the better off you are going to be."
Ms. Hannon, a Washington-based jobs expert for the American Association of Retired Persons, has found a ready audience for her book, published by last fall by Wiley. Between 2010 and 2020, people 55 and older are projected to be the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. labour force.
In her regular column for Forbes.com entitled Second Verse, she frequently profiles people who plan to continue to work past traditionally-held retirement ages – whether it means remaining in their current career as a consultant, starting an entirely new occupation, or working part-time or in seasonal jobs.
Ms. Hannon's book is filled with practical, current advice about qualifications and skills needed for a wide swath of jobs, including nonprofits, education, health care and sales. She also explores why part-time or contract work is worth it.
Financial obligations and unstable economies in both the United States and Canada are factors driving many older workers to keep working, Ms. Hannon says. But the jobs expert hears repeatedly from people 50 and older that they want to do work that is meaningful.
"We all want to just keep active and it sort of feeds into this idea of keeping mentally engaged in the world and in our life and hopefully leaving some kind of legacy of making a difference."
A recent Bank of Montreal study found that 81 per cent of Canadians plan to keep working into their retirement years. While the top reason was to keep up income, those surveyed also highlighted keeping mentally active as a motivation.
But for those who lose their jobs, take a buyout or opt for early retirement, planning their "second act" can be difficult.
Or, they may have no idea how to go about making a major career change at this stage in life. Ms. Hannon spoke with The Globe and Mail about how older workers can stay relevant and thrive in today's job market.
Does ageism exist in many workplaces?
I think it's huge. It's really still the taboo. Nobody wants to say that. I know so many people in their 50s that just get right down to the wire and they know it's the expiration date that is not getting them the job.
And it is crazy but this has got to start changing. The older work force is a fact and it is just going to continue so employers are going to have to adjust their attitudes and start making the workplace more conducive to an older worker.
What are some of the ways older people can ensure they are relevant and valuable?
The best way you can fight back is by being up to date on technology. That's non-negotiable. If you don't have a social media presence on LinkedIn, on Facebook, on Google+, good luck. You need to have a [digital] footprint so people know you have some savvy of how things are done.
You talk about encore careers – combining personal meaning with income. Do you find older people are more interested in doing that sort of work, or just doing something to make a little extra money?
I think that almost across the board everyone would like to do work that has meaning at this stage in their lives. But I think that at different age groups [it's different]. Somebody in their 70s might just really want to do that job that gives them the extra dough to go out to dinner or go to the movies. I think there is that population. I think there is definitely an encore movement in this country, though, especially people who came through the '60s, who still have that inkling of wanting to make a difference in the world. The problem with that is … in general non-profit work pays less.
In this book I was able to kind of go: Okay, here is a whole smorgasbord of things you can think about. Some of these jobs you might do for a season, some you might build out into a full-blown career but the point of it was to get people thinking.
Is it important to do a good deal of self-examination?
I think it is really important. Sometimes you have to ask the typical things. What did I really enjoy as a kid? What are the things that really make me happy? Those are the standard questions you are going to go back and ask and really dig deep into your background. Things you are naturally good at. I find it really useful to ask friends and colleagues what they think you are good at …because often people around us see things in our character or our skills that we take for granted.
How common is that real extreme switch, say from a construction worker to a writer? Is it more common for people to move to something where they do have some existing skills?
I think the subtle switch is more common. The real career changers are exciting and it's inspiring and I think we all have it in us to do that, but you may very well see somebody who is really great with numbers in accounting and who maybe worked in the utility field and then they find themselves working for a non-profit art dance troupe. They will still be doing the bookkeeping but they love dance … so they are able to take it into a new arena.
These stories are all around us but I think we all need to be pretty realistic because you have to really believe in yourself. The people I interviewed who really succeeded – they never doubted themselves. They had a lot of self confidence. Don't forget – debt is the real dream killer so money is the biggest stumbling block. If you are really serious about doing something different, take the time to do your budget, pay off credit debt and downsize.
Now that you have written a number of books about career transitions and retirement, do you think that people have a strong appetite for this type of information?
I think there is a real hunger for it. We are all grasping at straws to find just that one spark of inspiration. That's how I feel about this book: If I can just give somebody that one spark to make that one more phone call … do something every day. Make that one phone call, do that one letter, sign up for Twitter, work toward your whole goal. But make it manageable. You don't have to get your masters degree to start another career. Start by taking just one class. Just go slow. I think that boomers kind of grew up in a generation of self-help. There are all kinds of [books] out there, from getting out of debt to finding your spirit. I think this is just one more piece in that genre but a pretty important one because money makes the world go round for most of us, and if you've got to work, you might as well love it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.