How to Make Mid-Life Diversity Meaningful

My husband caught me off guard. Eight years ago, Tom calmly made a fairly extraordinary change in career, retiring after 25 years as an industrial chemist. His motivation was not a lack of skill in his first profession. With seven patents covering commercially successful products, he had earned a reputation of competence that probably would have carried him through his final peaceful years as a senior scientist.

But it wasn’t what he wanted.

In truth, he’d become increasingly disengaged from his work. No longer a burning passion, research had become a 9 to 5 job. Tom wanted to spend his time doing something different. He wanted to work with high school kids and encourage them to love science as he always had.

A lack of engagement with corporate work is a growing reality for many boomers, and the boomer version of “mid-life crisis” is proving very different from that of the generation before, for whom the dream of recaptured youth brought to mind the cliche of red sports cars or torrid affairs. For boomers, the desire for something different is often triggered by thoughts about giving back. Like Tom, many are reprioritizing around the idealistic values formed as youth.

Have we had the impact we expected to have? How can we make the next phase of our lives as meaningful as possible?

Today, nearly 9 million boomers, including Tom, are estimated to be in encore careers that offer greater meaning. According to a 2008 MetLife Foundation/Civic Ventures survey of nonprofit employees, retired boomers not already in encore careers say they “would like to move into jobs that matter, jobs that improve the quality of life in our nation’s communities.”

According to “Building Bridges in the Wilderness,” an article published July 16 in The Wall Street Journal, Richard Braunlich, whose first career was as a structural engineer, and his wife Chris, a CFO, combined their love of hiking and backpacking with a desire to contribute to the conservation movement. A trip to Patagonia led to involvement in preserving trails under the auspices of Conservation Volunteers International Program. Chris became the organization’s CFO, and now CEO, spending more than 40 hours a week managing the all-volunteer group. Richard is the structural engineer for the group, which works to build bridges across rivers and gorges. “I believed in the cause, and they needed me,” he said.

Across the board, boomers are pursuing encore careers that are more aligned with the individual’s values, passions and desires.

Tom was true to form. Within months of his decision, he was standing in a classroom, struggling to reach — often, frankly, just to understand — a new generation of would-be scientists.

The transition was not easy for him. He stepped away from a Ph.D.’s world of quiet contemplation and the company of test tubes, directly into the always-on demands of a classroom full of teenagers. Developing new lesson plans every day, sometimes for topics that he hadn’t thought much about for 30 years, while also filling the varied roles that are an integral part of New England boarding school life, was staggering.

And the transition wasn’t exactly easy for me. I rarely see him when school is in session — he heads out at 7 a.m., teaches, coaches, supervises in the dorms, corrects endless papers and starts all over to plan for the next day. Our small farm often seems to be falling down around our ears — there’s no time to repair fences or paint the barn. No affair would ever have been so time consuming, and the economic impact of changing from a scientist’s to a teacher’s salary would buy many red sports cars.

But it’s also been an experience neither of us would trade. Each year has proven easier and more rewarding than the last. I love seeing him so engaged. And, as one of his ardent admirers, I’m delighted that the school community has access to his talents — his innate goodness, his intelligence. I’m glad he’s giving back. What are you dreaming of doing at mid-life?

Tamara J. Erickson is the author of four books, including What’s Next, Gen X?, and is the founder and CEO of Tammy Erickson Associates, a business consulting firm.