A Switch at Midlife, to Make a Difference

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I CAN pinpoint the time in my career when I started to question what I was doing with my life.

It happened 12 years ago on Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro. I was enjoying my first vacation in nearly two years when a call came through on my cellphone. There was a crisis at work. My boss asked if I'd cut my trip short to take care of it. I said no, and that was it. I realized that my work as a corporate lawyer just didn't matter to me anymore. After I hung up, I vowed to figure out a way to leave that job and do something more meaningful.

My reinvention wasn't easy. After about two years, I weaned myself from the law and re-emerged as a journalist. It took a lot of work -- classes, conferences, networking with writers and editors, learning from mentors 10 years my junior. In time I was getting regular assignments and writing for publications that included The New York Times. Even today, more than 10 years into my new career, I earn only two-thirds of what I was making in my last law job. But the trade-offs are worth it.

The subject of career reinvention was so fascinating to me that it's become front and center in my current work. These days I'm working for Encore.org, a nonprofit that focuses on so-called encore careers. As people hit their 50th and 60th birthdays and realize they are far from done with work, millions are moving into new careers that combine making a living and a difference.

I've talked to hundreds of people who are part of this growing trend. People like Fred Weinberg, a retired New York State parole officer who now helps low-income patients navigate the health care system. And Nancy Burkhart, who started Earth Safe Finishes, a company that makes nontoxic paint, after her years of working in the arts and crafts industry convinced her that conventionally manufactured paints and varnishes were harming the environment.

The urge to shake up things at midlife even happens to those who have dedicated their lives to making a difference and may be experiencing burnout after 20 or 30 years on the job. I've met nonprofit leaders who told me they're done with board meetings and budgets and are ready to work one-on-one to help people. And I've talked to teachers who are ready to leave the classroom and focus on education policy.

Transitions are harder when you feel old enough to be a parent to everyone else at the office. Age discrimination is real, but those who reinvent over 50 don't let it get in the way. If they interview with organizations that don't value experience, they move on. When they network, they recognize the importance of intergenerational relationships; they even tap their children's LinkedIn contacts.

Many people over 50 need retraining or education to do the work they want to do. Some retool through classes at the local Y. Others enroll in certificate programs at community colleges to retrain for high-demand roles in nursing, caregiving or other health-related fields. Still others are like Priscilla Santiago, a laid-off forklift operator, who returned to college at 59 and ultimately found work at the WorkPlace, an agency in Bridgeport, Conn., helping others battered by the current economic slump.

New pathways are sprouting up for those seeking encore careers. ReServe, which placed Mr. Weinberg in his position with the Hospital for Special Surgery, matches people who are over 55 with part-time paid positions at nonprofits. Encore Fellowships, a program created by Encore.org, offers a transition to the nonprofit sector for professionals from the private sector interested in moving into mission-focused work. Even programs like Teach for America, known for recruiting recent graduates, are looking for those in midlife committed to fixing our country's schools.

MOVING into new work often requires taking a financial hit, so good planning is crucial. According to research from the MetLife Foundation and Encore.org, the average midlife transition to socially motivated work takes about 18 months, during which most people don't earn an income. Some spend more going back to school. In addition, it's common to take a pay cut if you're moving to a job more focused on mission than money.

As I inch closer to 50 myself, it's impossible not to notice that some things aren't what they used to be -- my vision, the shine of my hair, my ability to remember names. Still, I'm convinced the one thing that doesn't dim with age is the chance to change people's lives for the better, even our own.

Marci Alboher is the author of the coming "Encore Career Handbook: How to Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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