Author of Southern Stories



The Importance of a Second Career

Somewhere deeply ingrained in the modern American psyche is the concept of a happy retirement, one’s sunset years spent blissfully in endless rounds of golf, or travel, or whatever it was that you longed to do while gainfully employed but just never quite had the time. And indeed, for some of us looking at the last third or so of our lives, that may well be our future.

But the times, they are a-changing, as Bob Dylan so aptly reminded many of us during our teenage years. Dennis Hopper, once best known for his role in “Easy Rider,” now touts the services of Ameriprise Financial to the sounds of the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin.’” The concept of senescent summers On Golden Pond seems to have given away to the idea of one’s traditional retirement years spent in frenetic activity pursuing long-suppressed dreams.

It’s a dilemma. When I was in my twenties just starting my career, the concept of life beyond age 50 or 60 never entered my consciousness. I presumed that by the time I’d reached those advanced years I’d consider myself fortunate to be alive. Although I’m not quite there yet, I am beginning to feel the icy breath of retirement breathing down my neck. The strange thing is, though, if I didn’t look at myself in the mirror each morning while shaving, I’d imagine that I was 25—or 30 at the most. When the time comes, I don’t think I’ll be ready to be put out to pasture.

But I’m supposed to quit work at some point. Or am I? Who came up with the idea of traditional retirement?  First, a little background.  Retirement as we perceive it was scarcely known prior to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Most Americans worked until they were no longer able to do so, relying for the most part on their savings and family to support them through old age. And “old age” was quite short by today’s standards. A child born in 1900 had a life expectancy of only about 47 years, with many dying prior to adulthood. Even if one made it to age 20, the average life expectancy was only about 65 years.

The financial crisis of 1929 and the years that followed changed everything. As part of his New Deal legislation, President Roosevelt proposed a system that financially rewarded workers who retired at age 65. This became the “Old Age Pension Act” of 1935. While controversial at the time, one of the stated reasons for its passage was to coax older workers into retiring. The open jobs would be filled by younger workers resulting in a decrease in the unemployment rate which had peaked at 24.9% in 1933.

While never mentioned directly, it has been suggested somewhat cynically that in the mid-1930’s only about half of male workers survived to the new retirement age. But what a change the decades have brought. Today—according to official IRS unisex survival tables—a person achieving the age of 65 can expect to live for 21 more years. For age 75, 13.5 more years, and if you make it to age 90, there’s more than 5 years of life in your statistical future.

So, unlike our grandparents, most Americans can expect to spend decades retired, hopefully in relatively good health. For those of us who relish nothing more than shuffleboard and bingo, the options are there. But for the rest of us, these years of enforced relaxation can be monumentally boring.

Most of us will eventually end our current jobs or professions. For the majority of us this decision will be based more on age (and the financial incentives of Social Security and retirement accounts) than physical or mental need. As a physician, I’ve observed scores of my patients who, having spent years eagerly anticipating freedom from work, find their new life of leisure tedious and dull. My own father retired at 70 after 42 years of practicing medicine, only to spend the next 5 years trying to—in his words—“figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life.”

Hence the concept of a Second Career. The fact that you’ve qualified for retirement by dint of age does not imply that you should retreat to some marginal existence away from the rewards of meaningful employment elsewhere. Most retirees carry with them a wealth of knowledge that can only be gained by experience. Many times the skills we mastered during our careers can be redirected in other directions. With proper application these recycled talents can be both financially and personally rewarding. This reinvention of oneself can be one of the most exciting times of our lives.

So what are our options? As I see it, in breaking the mold of traditional retirement, there are four major considerations: financial, physical, mental and social. From a financial standpoint, most of us should be in good shape. The current wave of baby-boomer retirees have had the benefit of IRAs, 401-Ks, and other such savings plans that were unavailable to their parents and grandparents. With moderation and common sense, most Americans today can live reasonably well during their retirement years. The bottom line here is this: Money ceases to be the most important consideration when looking for new work opportunities.

Physically, perhaps we can’t run marathons, but no one is going to ask us to. The value of an older worker relates to his or her experience and acquired skills.

Should we be concerned about our mental capabilities? Many of us were taught that after a certain tender age the brain’s capabilities were fixed, that we grew no new neurons, losing with time the ones that we possessed until the inevitable onset of terminal senility. That concept was shown to be false years ago. While age-related changes in the human brain are well documented, the majority of the time they have little bearing on our functional abilities. In fact, it is well established that individuals who lead an active life of physical, social and intellectual involvement live longer than those who do not.

Social considerations may be the most important reason of all for plunging back into the workplace. We need and benefit from the company and mental stimulation of others. We may have discovered that our closest friends over the years have been our colleagues from work. If you have moved to a new home for your retirement, a second career represents a chance to make new friends and to broaden your social horizons. What better way to avoid the dreaded loneliness of old age?

The decision to embark on a new career is one that only you can make. It doesn’t have to be a job in the usual sense, but it should be something that both excites you and challenges you mentally and physically. If it’s traditional employment, it should be something that you look forward to. If your second career is something that requires your learning new skills, it should provide a sense of accomplishment. The key is organization and structured obligations that make you want to roll out of bed in the morning with a sense of purpose.

Think about it, then do it.


(This Article originally appeared inthe Spring 2008 issue of Splash magazine)