Leah D. Thayer worked in commercial real estate for 30 years, overseeing leasing and management of retail projects such as the Houston Galleria and the Chevy Chase Pavilion as a vice president of Hines Interests LP, a Houston-based international real estate development company. Now she is studying acting, working on skills she set aside decades ago, and hoping to develop a career doing commercials, local theater and radio.
"I'm just at the point where I want to do something entirely different," said Thayer, 60, who still consults for a few real estate clients. She remains as ambitious as she was in her real estate career, but now her ambitions are taking her in a new, creative direction. And she hopes to make money doing it -- "just because I'd like to be a professional. It's a goal I have."
Thayer is not alone in setting new goals for herself at an age when many would be thinking about retiring. According to employment services firms, career coaches and researchers on older employees, Thayer is part of a growing trend -- workers in their fifties and sixties who are departing longtime jobs for new positions or, in some cases, new careers.
Some workers have had to linger in the labor force because of lost pensions or shrunken retirement savings, but others continue to work because they want to. And their numbers are almost certain to grow as larger numbers of Americans reach what traditionally has been considered retirement age. By 2030, Americans 62 or older will make up nearly a quarter of the population.
John M. Palguda spent 34 years in federal service before he left his job as director of the Office of Policy and Evaluation of the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board. A little over a year ago, at age 55, he seized on an unexpected opportunity to move to the nonprofit sector to become vice president of policy and research at the Partnership for Public Service, an organization that encourages people to pursue careers in public service.
"Here was a chance to continue to work on things I cared about and to do it from a different vantage point," said Palguda, who says working in the nonprofit sector means increased independence and "being able to call it as I see it."
Part of the leading edge of the baby boom, Palguda had just become eligible for retirement when the new job happened along, but leaving the workforce wasn't on his mind. "I do still think about myself, despite what the mirror says, as being fairly young," he said. "The idea of retiring and going off into the sunset seems fairly remote."
"My cohort is the baby boomers," Palguda said. "I think really our generation still has a fair amount of the work ethic ingrained in us." Among more than two dozen friends and co-workers who have reached retirement eligibility, "I can think of only two who basically consider themselves retired," he said. The others "have all transitioned into some type of activity that still keeps them engaged in the labor force."
That is consistent with a 1998 survey of baby boomers by AARP that found that 80 percent of those who responded expected to work after retirement -- either full time, part time or for themselves, said Sara E. Rix, senior policy adviser for the organization.
A survey conducted in January for the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that 28 percent of current retirees hold paying jobs, up from 22 percent in 1998. An even higher percentage of those still in the workforce expect to work for pay after retirement. Among workers born before 1946, 65 percent expect to work for pay after they retire. An even higher percentage of workers born during the baby boom expect to work in post-retirement jobs: 70 percent for the older baby boomers and 73 percent for the younger ones.
"The performance of the market has built up economic reasons," said Mathew Greenwald, whose market research firm conducted the survey. "But the other factors are health and longevity."
Joseph F. Quinn, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Boston College and an economist who has studied trends in retirement, said that over most of the past century, the age at which Americans retired declined, but now that trend has reversed. Quinn also found that many older workers "leave the workforce gradually, utilizing 'bridge jobs' between employment on a full-time-career job and complete labor force withdrawal." According to Quinn, estimates suggest that between a third and a half of older workers will shift into retirement through a "bridge" job.
Better health and longer lives (in part because the nature of work has become less physically demanding than in the days when the economy was more dependent on mining and manufacturing) mean that many people now approaching retirement age can expect to live into their eighties. The same phenomenon that gives policymakers heartburn when they think about how to pay for Social Security benefits for a large and long-lived generation of retirees prompts individuals to think creatively about what they want to do with the decade or two or three ahead.
Ed Honnold, a career coach, said he sees an increasing number of clients who are professionals in their fifties and sixties. "Most of them have already accomplished something significant enough to them in their first career, and many have postponed or deferred addressing a deeper desire or longing in their lives," he said.
That plays out, but "not in a desire to head off to Palm Beach," he said. "They all want to do something with their energy. They tend to be healthy, dynamic people. They all want to do something meaningful to them." Three of his clients have joined the clergy, he said.
Changes in the law also have fostered a climate in which it is easier for older workers to keep working. Mandatory retirement at a set age has almost disappeared, and Social Security rules that once penalized people who worked past the age at which they fully qualified for benefits have been eliminated. The age for full benefits is gradually increasing, which also may keep more workers on the job longer.
The economic boom of the 1990s created a premium for workers that tempted some older employees to continue working. Now, since the bust, more people are working because of economic anxiety, said Shel Hart, vice president of the professional recruiting group Spherion Corp., a nationwide recruiting and outsourcing firm. Hart helps match companies with interim executives -- many of them 50 or older, who have retired from one job but who need or want to keep working. About 30 percent of those are working, Hart said, "purely because they want the flexibility and they want to stay engaged."
According to government estimates, within the next 10 years there will be nearly 168 million jobs in the American economy and only about 158 million people in the labor market to fill them. Going forward, businesses will need older workers, he said. "Keeping them in the workforce is not only going to be a nice thing to be doing, it's going to be a necessity to keep competitive."
People are becoming more aware of the potential of older workers, said Gene D. Cohen, director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University. "There are more people over 65 in America today than the total population of Canada, and they are a healthier and more resourceful group than ever before," he said.
And they may be at a particularly creative stage, said Cohen, who has written about this issue in a book called "The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life." For many people, this kicks in beginning in their fifties, after a period of reevaluation that often occurs at midlife. "They have gone through a profound period of thinking about where they are and where they're going and the journeys or voyages they have or haven't been on," Cohen said.
"Contrary to the stereotypes about aging, people reaching that stage of life often feel more free to try something different than they ever did," he said. Having finished paying for their children's education or being able to consider a lower-paying job because they have retirement income often enhances that sense of freedom, according to both older workers and those who work with them.
Murray S. Scureman made his career change in 1998 at age 59, leaving a longtime job with the technology company Amdahl Corp., now renamed Fujitsu Technology Solutions Inc. For the last 10 years of his corporate career, Scureman had managed Amdahl's government affairs office in Washington, until he left to open a home-remodeling business.
Now he works longer hours and manages eight employees, and he wouldn't have it any other way, he said. "One of the things you do in this business is, when somebody doesn't show, you're it," he said. "I do everything from digging and carrying materials to framing, a little plumbing, a little electric, a little trim. I've picked up a ton of skills." And he finds the people he meets -- almost all of whom have a kitchen they are thinking about remodeling -- much more interested in what he does now.
"Although financially, I'm probably right where I should be, I don't want to stop working," he said. Remodeling is a tough, competitive business, but Scureman said he intends to stick with it "as long as I'm still having fun and making money. If either of those disappears, I'll quit."
He added, "I'm 64 years old, and I'm having more fun than I had in the last 20 years in corporate America."