En español | Polly Cummings didn't discover her perfect job until she was 56. She'd fallen into jobs in advertising and private school admissions, but had always longed to do something more meaningful. For a while, she volunteered at the Dana Farber Cancer Center in Boston interviewing patients about their care. But she still felt she wasn't really helping anyone.
So when she heard the hospital was launching a new program to give cancer patients hand massages, she eagerly offered to participate. After discovering that her massages could calm patients and even lower their blood pressure, she was hooked.
"I know I can make people feel better, and that makes me feel better," said Cummings, 60, of Newton, who returned to school to become a licensed massage therapist.
Cummings described her vocational journey at New England's first summit on encore careers, cosponsored by AARP. Such careers provide personal meaning and social impact. As older people enjoy years of good health, many are eager to find work that gives them more personal satisfaction — and a chance to make a difference in their communities.
"People are chasing the dream jobs they always wanted," said Deborah Banda, AARP Massachusetts state director. "They see working later in life not as a burden, but as a fabulous opportunity."
More than 5 million people have already entered encore careers, and 70 percent of wage earners plan to work for pay after retirement, national surveys show.
Given the dismal state of the economy, where keeping any job is a challenge, it may seem foolhardy to think of changing careers. But in eight short years, the job outlook will be radically different, said Barry Bluestone, dean of Northeastern University's School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. With boomers aging and fewer younger workers entering the job market, "as many as 5 or 6 million jobs could go begging for workers" by 2018, he said.
Fields with the highest vacancy rates will include health care, education and human services — all fields that can offer personally rewarding work.
Older people are "a talent pool to meet unmet human needs," said Phyllis Segal, vice president of Civic Ventures, a think tank on boomers and social purpose. "They are a resource too good to waste for our society."
Already, many people have found innovative ways to keep working and have a social impact, she said.
Here are a few examples:
- One former telecom analyst helped wire an Appalachian county in North Carolina;
- a former truck driver now shuttles older and disabled people;
- a 90-year-old businessman created a music program for children; and
- the publisher of a prominent medical journal is studying to become a rabbi.
Civic Ventures has launched the website encore.org, and given grants to 40 colleges, including Cape Cod Community College, to develop encore career programs.
Deciding what career to pursue may be a challenge, but help is available. At Discovering What's Next, a nonprofit group in Newton, people can attend seminars, learn how to use the LinkedIn website to network, or meet "encore navigators" who can help them figure out how to find a new career.
People sometimes explore possibilities by volunteering at jobs or taking classes at community colleges, said Carol Greenfield, founder of Discovering What's Next.
The transition process may not be quick or easy but it can be quite gratifying — as Polly Cummings, the newly minted massage therapist, will attest.
"Everything feels right about this," said Cummings, who continues to volunteer at Dana Farber and also works in a private massage therapy office. "I'm happy to get up in the morning."
For more information on encore careers, go to AARP Massachusetts website.
Rochelle Sharpe is a Pulitzer Prize-winning freelance writer based in Brookline, Mass.