Abandoned by promised retirement pensions or swept up in corporate downsizing, an unprecedented number of 50-plus professionals feel pressed to reinvent their work lives. Many also are dealing with unexpected health problems and other life events that prompt a change in professional direction.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 40 percent of workers older than 55 were in the workforce as of February 2010 -- up from just 29.2 percent in 1993. The labor force participation rate of workers 55+ is forecasted to increase to 43 percent in 2020. As more Baby Boomers choose or need to stay employed beyond traditional retirement age, they are called upon to stretch their thinking in new ways in order to close out their work lives with financial security, integrity and purpose.
But far from being left behind in this century's ever-changing labor market, older workers can benefit from leveraging their talent and experience into entrepreneurial efforts. These three stories of workers who have done it will inspire you.
Freelance in Your Chosen Field
After years of working third shift as a nurse in a pediatric hospital, Anne Turner was enjoying a more relaxed retirement pace -- until she became widowed at 62 and encountered unanticipated financial constraints. Needing to return to work but wary of nursing's long hours and physical demands, Turner decided to freelance as a private-duty nurse providing in-home care. She chooses the patients for whom she provides care, minimizes physical strain and controls the hours and days she works.
"The ability to determine my schedule while supplementing my income allowed me to have the best of both worlds -- financial flexibility and time to enjoy the retirement I had waited for and worked so hard to achieve," says Turner. "It's not what I had planned to do at my age, but I've learned to roll with the punches."
Make a Career Out of Your Hobby
After 32 years of teaching media arts in public schools, Ed Matthews faced his decision when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. At 51, he wanted the freedom and flexibility to focus on her care. Although his pension was compromised, Matthews and his wife decided to cash in on time together when it mattered most. Once the intense days of caretaking were over and his wife was recovering, Matthews translated his love of carpentry into a business that has become a lucrative second career.
"I was surprised to find that I am actually earning as much money now as when I was teaching, and I can decide to take on only those projects that I enjoy for people I want to work with and for," he says. The work also allows Matthews to control his schedule so that he can spend time with his wife.
Matthews finds himself mentoring younger workers in ways that are equally as satisfying as teaching, and he is pursuing his love of television and video production by undertaking freelance projects for area colleges and universities.
Cultivate Consulting Opportunities
Martha Nolte chose to take advantage of an early-retirement incentive program. She worked for 25 years as a project manager for various manufacturing companies and eventually state government. Planning to pursue a long-held dream of starting an herb farm, she faced the need to supplement her limited pension to make her idea possible. Using her professional network, Nolte made her early retirement work for her, finding consulting work at a high hourly rate. This was possible because she didn't need the health insurance and long-term stability of a full-time position. She carved out three days a week to earn the income to advance her retirement goal. More in demand than ever, her biggest difficulty these days is keeping her consulting to three days a week.
Whether you choose to stay in the field you've devoted your professional life to or opt for a brand-new path, a later-in-life career change requires you to take risks and define success -- and yourself -- in new ways. You must also be willing to accept a different view of the future than you originally envisioned.