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Research

Second Careers Late in Life Extend Work

Moving into a new job late in life involves some big tradeoffs.

What do older people look for when considering a change? Work that they enjoy, fewer hours, more flexibility, and less stress. What could they be giving up? Pensions, employer health insurance, some pay, and even prestige.

Faced with such consequential tradeoffs, many older people who move into second careers are making “strategic decisions to trade earnings for flexibility,” concluded a review of past studies examining the prevalence and nature of late-life career changes.

The authors, who conducted the study for the University of Michigan’s Retirement and Disability Research Center, define a second career as a substantial change in an older worker’s full-time occupation or industry. They also stress that second careers involve retraining and a substantial time commitment – a minimum of five years.

The advantage of second careers is that they provide a way for people in their late 40s, 50s, or early 60s who might be facing burnout or who have physically taxing jobs to extend their careers by finding more satisfying or enjoyable work.

Here’s what the authors learned from the patchwork of research examining late-life job changes:

People who are highly motivated are more likely to voluntarily leave one job to pursue more education or a position in a completely different field, one study found. But older workers who are under pressure to leave an employer tend to make less dramatic changes.

One seminal study, by the Urban Institute, that followed people over time estimated that 27 percent of full-time workers in their early 50s at some point moved into a new occupation – say from a lawyer to a university lecturer. However, the research review concluded that second careers are more common than that, because the Urban Institute did not consider another way people transition to a new career: making a big change within an occupation – say from a critical care to neonatal nurse. “Unretiring” is also an avenue for moving into a second career.

What is clear from the existing studies is that older workers’ job changes may involve financial sacrifices, mainly in the form of lower pay or a significant loss of employer health insurance. But they generally get something in return: more flexibility.

Indeed, the Urban Institute study found that about 45 percent of the workers who changed jobs had the flexibility they desired in the final stage of their careers, compared with just 27 percent of the same workers when they were in their original jobs.

Older workers will eventually get a financial benefit in retirement if they find new, more satisfying work that extends their careers: it enables them to delay Social Security and save more money, which puts them in a better position financially when they finally do retire.

To read the entire study, authored by Brooke Helppie McFall and Amanda Sonnega, see “Characteristics of Second-career Occupations: a Review and Synthesis.”

The research reported herein was performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement Research Consortium. The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the author(s) and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA or any agency of the federal government. Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, makes any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report. Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.

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