Even so, older Americans appear to be trying to fashion a working life beyond the middle years — and often succeeding. Entrepreneurship, for one thing, is rising. For 11 of the 15 years from 1996 to 2010, Americans between the ages of 55 and 64 had the highest rate of entrepreneurial activity of any age group, according to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Twice as many founders of U.S. technology companies were over age 50 as were under 25.
Across the socioeconomic spectrum, 9 percent of Americans ages 44 to 70 have launched "encore" careers, according to a 2011 study by Penn Schoen Berland. Their paying jobs, part- or full-time, are often in the public sector — as teachers, nurses, home health aides, and the like — or with nonprofit groups.
The practical idealism of these late careers may reflect a shift in values as people mature and focus more on activities meant to contribute to society's greater good. Such late-stage jobs fit nicely within the socially beneficial lines of work that Northeastern University economist Barry Bluestone has predicted will need more labor: education, health care, nonprofit community groups, religious organizations, and government.
An encore career may entail some preparation. The number of over-50 Americans entering divinity school has doubled since 1990. A Catholic seminary near Milwaukee, the Sacred Heart School of Theology, specializes in training second-career priests — widowers, mainly. This past fall, high-tech billionaire Steve Poizner and former Hollywood studio executive Sherry Lansing announced a $15 million partnership with the University of California (Los Angeles) to launch the Encore Career Institute, a program of continuing education aimed at baby boomers. The American Association of Community Colleges has started an initiative to accommodate the growth of the over-50 student population, which increased by 17 percent from 2007 to 2009.
These things are happening without much of a push from Washington. After World War II, the GI Bill helped ex-soldiers gain an education and thrive. Nowadays, the federal Troops to Teachers initiative helps military personnel, many of them retired, earn a degree in education. But aspiring encore careerists can't look to the government for much more help. A 2009 law promoting national service established Encore Fellowships for adults who want to move into nonprofit or public-sector employment, but Congress hasn't appropriated a cent to fund them.
Unless Washington summons up the desire — and money — to urge this transition along, the future of
encore careers will depend on the private sector. And on a generation's entrenched culture. As baby boomers live longer and wrestle with retirement, they won't accede easily. The willful generation that Time magazine named as its Man of the Year — "25 and Under," in 1966 — never has.
The writer is founder and CEO of Civic Ventures, a San Francisco think tank on baby boomers, and the author of The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife.