Millions of older helping hands

New beginnings and fresh starts are the stuff of hopes and dreams. The longing can come at any stage of life, but it holds particular urgency in the later years, when notions of what is possible can grow narrow and rigid.

Now change is in the air, and old stereotypes of retiring to a life of perpetual leisure are giving way to dreams of new careers after retirement. And not just any job will do for some retirees. They want work that improves the quality of life in their communities.

In a survey called "New Face of Work," half of those between the ages of 50 and 70 say they'd like to have a job that allows them to serve others. This includes positions in education and social services. Nearly 60 percent want work that gives them a sense of purpose and allows them to stay involved with people. The survey was sponsored by the MetLife Foundation and Civic Ventures.

Women in particular report that the opportunity to help those in need is an important characteristic for a post- retirement job.

That desire led Carol Harris-Mannes to make a dramatic shift. After nearly four decades as an actor, she wanted a change. At 60 she earned a master's degree in social work at Columbia University. Now she works full time as a social worker with the Actors Fund in New York, helping those in her former profession. "You have to feel useful and productive as you age," says Ms. Harris-Mannes, now a widow.

Susie Cavanaugh's second chapter began after she retired as a social studies teacher in Lexington, Ky. Vowing that she was "not going to just sit down," she found a job as a coordinator for a United Way program called Get on Board. She recruits and trains people to serve on governing boards of nonprofit organizations that need diversity.

Dave Miller of Charlotte, N.C., spent 30 years at BellSouth, then took early retirement. Now he directs operations at Crisis Assistance Ministry, a local nonprofit that gives emergency financial aid to those in need.

Call them the new faces of retirement. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School, even wants a new term to replace the word retirement. She proposes calling this the "phase of service" or the "third stage," to designate a period of "making a difference, leaving a legacy, leading a community." It would follow the first and second stages of life, education and careers.

The same activists who helped lead the civil rights movement and the women's movement in the 1960s will play central roles in starting this new phase of life, Professor Kanter says. "These are not people who want to stuff envelopes or deliver flowers in hospitals. They have advanced skills."

Still, for all the idealism, only 12 percent of those in the survey think it will be easy to find this kind of "good work."

Velma Simpson knows the challenge. After selling her successful insurance agency in Colorado, she applied for a number of jobs. Despite her business experience and community service on boards of directors, offers were scarce.

"I really think it was age discrimination," she says. But she persevered - and triumphed. Now with a master's degree, she works with programs for the homeless at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington.

At a time when companies often appear too eager to thin the ranks of midlife workers, it will take a new willingness by employers to welcome these older workers. For would-be employees changing careers, the job search may also require creativity.

But the rewards can be manifold. Describing herself as "immensely thankful" for her job, Ms. Cavanaugh echoes the comments of other later-life career-changers when she says, "There's so much work that needs to be done. I get so much satisfaction out of it."

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