After more than 30 years working with autistic teens and deaf senior citizens, 53-year-old Susan Cherry, who is deaf herself, was looking for a change. Her dream had always been to work in a medical lab, but her high school teachers had warned Cherry against it because of her hearing disability. But when she recently learned that the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at Rochester Institute of Technology offered medical classes, Cherry decided to return to school full-time to get a second bachelor's degree. The only problem was that in order to fulfill her graduation requirements, she’d have to do something that's atypical for a 50-year-old: complete a 10-week unpaid internship.
Cherry is just one of many older people in the U.S. doing something that would've been largely unheard for those nearing retirement age in generations past: taking steps to reinvent herself, rather than preparing to retreat from the professional world. “There have always been mature workers who simply enjoy work and don’t wish to fully retire 'til much later in life,” says Ryan Hunt, senior career advisor for CareerBuilder.com. “But in this economic climate, it’s clear many are applying for new jobs due to financial constraints.” In addition, increased longevity and changing notions of aging are causing more Americans to look for new professional opportunities as they enter into their 50s, 60s, and even 70s. Plenty, like Cherry, are seeking out internships or entry-level jobs to help them get to the next stage of their lives.
They're indicative of a new, aging worker population in the United States—one that’s managing, ageist expectation aside, to take jobs away from the youth. In 2002, only 13 percent of American workers were 55 and older in 2000, but that the number is expected to rise to 25.2 percent by 2020, according to a 2012 analysis by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the past five years, people aged 55 and over gained 3.6 million jobs, while their younger counterparts lost more than twice that—7.6 million. Similarly, in the preceding twelve months, those 55 and older snagged more than 67 percent of the 2.5 million new jobs created. Why are older people getting snapped up so disproportionately? “Employers have been looking for ways to get inexpensive talent,” says Marci Alboher, author of One Person/Multiple Careers: A New Model for Work/Life Success.
In the past, more senior folks would typically seek out more senior positions, but today that’s not always the case. A 2009 CareerBuilder report found that 63 percent of workers aged 55 and older who'd been laid off had applied for jobs more junior than the ones they'd previously held. One out of every four companies surveyed received applications for entry-level jobs from workers over the age of 50, and an additional 11 percent got them from retirees. Moreover, in a 2011 CareerBuilder study, 75 percent of employers said they would consider overqualified candidates. “We're now seeing people at all ages and life stages tweaking or changing careers throughout their lives, often repeatedly,” says Alboher.
Those looking to make a dramatic switch are helping to change the conventional wisdom that internships are almost exclusively opportunities for young people. “With the tightening of the job market, people of all ages have been looking for ways to enhance their skills,” Alboher notes. And internships, she says, are the best ways to help yourself transition, no matter what your age.
Alboher is a vice president at Civic Ventures, a nonprofit think tank that studies boomers and the workplace. In 2009, the organization started a unique initiative called Encore Fellowships Program that helps older professionals, often close to retirement age, segue into jobs in the nonprofit sector. The fellows are similar to interns in that they're only paid stipends for their work, foregoing a higher wage in return for the skills and contacts. “They get hands-on experience performing high-impact work, the personal satisfaction of leveraging their skills for the greater good, and a new network in the nonprofit sector,” says Leslye Louie, Encore's national director.
What's in it for Encore’s non-profits? Benefits similar to those enjoyed by all companies who take on older people. “They bring advanced decision making, mentoring and leadership qualities to the table that many of their younger counterparts still haven’t developed,” says Hunt.
One of Encore's current fellows, 53-year-old Beth Kempner, spent 25 years in advertising, becoming a senior vice president at the ad firm Saatchi & Saatchi where she worked with clients like Disney and General Mills. But after years of helping big companies make big money, she decided that she wanted to use her skills to help non-profits. Encore placed her with the public affairs office at the Center for Employment Opportunities, an organization that assists people with criminal records as they try to find work.
Kempner admits that her time at the Center has been “challenging, frustrating, and enlightening.” She explains: “I was used to working with a large group, and being able to delegate many tasks”—whereas now she has a lot to accomplish single-handedly. Nonetheless, she likes the creative demands of her new gig. At the Center, she is “not selling sugar cereal,” as she puts it, but rather “‘selling’ the idea that people coming home from prison deserve a job just as much as anyone else.”
Kempner, who had plenty of youthful co-workers at Saatchi & Saatchi, says that she's been perfectly comfortable reporting to directors younger than she is. But not every older worker handles that kind of adjustment so easily. “Some fellows have had challenges working with younger bosses,” Louie acknowledges. Alboher feels that companies should take responsibility for keeping age-related tensions at a minimum. “In a work environment where it's increasingly common to have people of three different generations … the onus is on employers to ensure that teams are prepared to take advantage of the different assets people of different generations bring to work,” she says.
From an employer's perspective, older newbies are often more desirable than younger ones, according to Louie. “We regularly hear that a younger intern takes much more energy to oversee,” she notes. Older workers, on the other hand, come to the job with an “ability to self-manage, experience in getting things done and getting along with others, and a general pattern of success in a prior work setting,” she points out. Those, she says, are “valuable assets in any workplace.”
Is there any chance that interns eligible for Social Security will soon become as de rigeur as those with freshly minted degrees? Alboher thinks so. “As you see people graduating from college or masters programs at the same time as their children and grandchildren, it will certainly become more commonplace to see those same people starting internships as well,” she says. Having people in their 50's, 60's, and 70's working in entry-level jobs “means that we're recognizing that people will be continuing to reinvent and contribute to society throughout their lives.”