What Is an Encore Career?

An encore career is a second vocation beginning in the latter half of one's life, popularized by author and social entrepreneur Marc Freedman. An encore career is typically pursued for its public or social purpose and a sense of fulfillment as well as for financial reasons.

While encore careers can be found in any sector, they tend to be clustered in five areas: healthcare, the environment, education, government, and the nonprofit sector. Freedman describes the encore career concept in his book Encore: Finding Work that Matters in the Second Half of Life.

Key Takeaways

  • An encore career refers to beginning a new vocation at a later age, typically after regular retirement from a prior career.
  • The term "encore career" was coined by social entrepreneur Marc Freedman in the 2007 book Encore: Finding Work that Matters in the Second Half of Life.
  • Encore careers are typically motivated by social impact and a sense of personal fulfillment rather than economic factors.
  • These second-career paths are often concentrated in healthcare, environmental justice, education, and public service.

Understanding Encore Careers

Freedman argues that encore careers have grown more common both for economic and social reasons. The traditional retirement age of 65 came out of a nineteenth-century manufacturing economy, when workers couldn't physically stand to work longer, and when the average lifespan was not much older. But today, most Americans work in the service sector, where the physical strain of work is far reduced, and often live decades after the age of 65.

Americans are living longer, making early retirement much more expensive. Workers adopt an encore career because there is more work they are able to do and, in many cases, because they need to work in order to support themselves. Further compounding the economic need for encore careers is the fact that social security benefits have not kept pace with the cost of retirement.

Even so, the large size of the baby boomer cohort aging into Social Security means that the program is becoming more expensive and less generous. Encore careers are thus a necessary force for maintaining the relative size of the working population to the retired population.

Prevalence of Encore Careers

Studies have found encore careers becoming more common as the baby boomer cohort approached retirement. A 2011 survey by Penn Schoen Berland found that nine million Americans were engaged in encore careers, and another 31 million were interested in starting one. The survey was based on a nationally representative sample of Americans aged 44-70, surveyed online and by telephone.

This represents a substantial pool of potential labor, which could be turned towards valuable social services projects. The most common encore careers were in education (30%), healthcare (25%), and government (25%), with another 11% working in the nonprofit sector.

However, transitioning to an encore career is easier said than done. 67% of respondents said that they had reduced income or no income at all while transitioning to their second careers, and 36% had diminished incomes for over two years. Financial security was a major factor for those seeking a second career, with 28% of respondents citing insufficient income as a key motivation. Only 21% cited the desire to make a bigger difference.

In order to facilitate second careers and overcome these financial difficulties, "encore fellowships" have been proposed as a potential bridge for those seeking a career transition. The Serve America Act, signed by President Barack Obama in 2009, includes funds for up to ten "encore service programs" in each state.

Special Considerations

Because it is older workers who engage in encore careers, these careers tend to be qualitatively different than a person’s first career. Many workers who have made a lot of money or achieved great status in their first career might strive to fulfill other values with their encore careers, like helping others or advancing a specific political cause.

Freedman argues that encore careers can be broadly beneficial to society because many older people want to be of use to others as they age. By harnessing this natural tendency, society can both overcome the perceived problems of an aging workforce to the economy, while also solving social problems with the hard work and experience older workers can provide.