Isn’t It Time to Do What You Love?

Isn’t It Time to Do What You Love?

It used to be that people got to a certain age and began anticipating retirement. That’s not necessarily the case anymore. For several decades, individuals have been extending their work lives. The trend seems poised to continue for the foreseeable future and is reshaping the traditional career trajectory.

Yes, there is a greater number of older workers now, thanks to Baby Boomers reaching retirement age. But that’s only part of the story; the workforce participation rate of older workers is also up.

In the U.S. roughly one-in-five (19%) Americans ages 65 and older were employed in 2023, according to Pew Research Center. That is nearly double the share of those over 65 who were working 35 years ago. They’re also working more hours, on average, than in previous decades. Today, 62% of older workers are working full time, up from 47% in 1987.

Why is this happening?

There are several factors at play. One is that people are healthier and live longer. Governments are also playing a role. Given aging demographics, countries feel pressure to periodically edge up the official age of retirement. Sometimes they even succeed. (The French government’s 2023 law raising its retirement age from 62 to 64 is one, um, notable example.)

In the U.S. financial incentives to retire early have changed, too. Nearly extinct are plans providing life-long pension benefits to people with 30 years of service, for example.

Many older workers are tired of working for work’s sake, but they’re not ready to slow down. They just want to do what they love.

For these reasons, it has gradually become socially acceptable to work longer. Now, it seems, older workers, themselves, are retiring the concept of retirement – or at least rethinking it. They are stepping away from long-held careers to embark on new ventures. They are no longer interested in climbing the corporate ladder; instead, they are building new ones.

Motivations range from needing a change of pace to a desire for personal fulfillment to wanting to give back to society in some meaningful way. But the common thread is this: Many older workers are tired of working for work’s sake, however, they’re not ready to slow down. They just want to do what they love.

To be sure, they offer an appealing model for professionals who are still years away from retirement. They demonstrate that as values change careers need not follow a conventional arc.

Evolving Work Motivations

It was overabundant energy that compelled Victoria Sydorowicz to start job seeking. After nearly 20 years at a national insurance company, where she rose to the level of VP of finance, she stepped back to care for her young grandchildren. She also consulted part-time with small companies on how to improve their businesses, but that work wasn’t sufficiently satisfying after her grandchildren started school.

With the help of a career coach, Victoria made a list of what she wanted in her next role. The results surprised her.

“I thought I wanted C-suite. But when I made a list of the things I wanted in my next position, it didn’t include title or money. What it did include was, first, an innovative, tech-forward company. That was very important to me. Second, a company that would see my value and to which I could add value. Third, I wanted a flexible schedule, because I have a lot of fulfilling activities outside of work that I’m not willing to give up. I wanted someone to trust me with that flexibility.”

Victoria’s shifting motivations are far from unusual.

Global management consulting firm Bain & Company, which conducts research in 19 countries on what motivates people to go to work, has produced fascinating insights. Bain finds that nearly everyone falls into one of six worker archetypes: Operator, Artisan, Striver, Giver, Explorer, and Pioneer.

According to Bain, “Before age 60, the average worker in developed markets is primarily motivated by good compensation. Around 60, however, there is a tipping point. Interesting work becomes the No. 1 job attribute. Autonomy and flexibility significantly increase in importance, too.”

As workers age, more of them become Artisans and Givers. Artisans want autonomy and work that interests them, while Givers find meaning in personal growth and helping others.

What's important in a job sorted by Age Job Attribute graphic2

Finding Fulfillment Beyond the Familiar

Lynn Duke most certainly falls into the “Giver” category. After retiring as chief human resources officer for a major school district in Georgia where she worked for 30 years, Lynn wanted to work for an organization whose mission was to help people. She found it in a position as human resources director of a regional nonprofit that advocates for the needs of senior citizens. She was excited about the opportunity to put some much-needed new processes into place for her new employer.

Lynn’s story is a testament to the satisfaction many veteran workers derive from their jobs, particularly when their roles align with personal values. According to Pew, older workers offer the most positive assessments of their jobs. A whopping two-thirds of workers 65 and older say they are extremely or very satisfied with their job overall. By comparison, 55% of those 50-64, 51% of those 30 to 49, and 44% of those 18 to 29 say the same. Older workers are also most likely to find their job enjoyable and fulfilling and least likely to find it stressful.

Workers 65 and older are the most likely to find their job enjoyable or fulfilling graphic

Sometimes doing what you love requires leaving your comfort zone. It’s risky seeking fulfillment beyond the familiar, but when it works, it is glorious!

One rather dramatic example of someone finding fulfillment beyond the familiar is Bibi, chief administrative officer for a large university. After a 24-year career in higher education, she took a leap of faith to pursue her dream job.

To her delight, Bibi landed as director of special projects for an environmental nonprofit organization focused on reforestation. She was even invited to write the job description.

“I was eager to do something I really care about, which is working with trees,” said Bibi. “But I never, in a million years, thought I’d be able to do it.”

Retirement vs. Second Career?

Sometimes people retire and realize that it’s not as great as they thought it would be. So, they “un-retire” and go back to work again, like Farid. After an active career as a global CIO of a multinational insurance company, Farid found retirement boring. But he found renewed excitement in a second career as COO of a small insurance business with ambitious plans to double in size within two years.

Experienced workers sometimes execute long-held dreams of working for themselves. According to Pew Research, older workers are more than twice as likely as younger workers to be self-employed. Nearly a quarter of them are, compared with 10% of workers ages 25 to 64.

Sometimes doing what you love requires leaving your comfort zone. 

And why not? They have a career’s worth of skills and experience to leverage. Cameron Carnegie took the plunge when he realized that starting his own aerospace engineering and consulting business would bring greater fulfillment than finding an executive position in the same industry. For Cameron, the upsides outweighed the risks.

“Running my own company is terrifying, but it gives me the freedom and the lifestyle I want to have,” said Cameron.

Challenges and Considerations

To be sure, career transitions later in life come with challenges. Financial security is a concern, as is the physical and mental adjustment to new work environments or the demands of starting a business. Additionally, age discrimination remains a pervasive issue. When Hugo Vereeken was laid off, he struggled for months with the stigma of being a 60-something-year-old job seeker.

“Age discrimination is against the law, but they never say you’re too old. They say, ‘Are you digital enough? Will you fit in with our dynamic team? Are you aware of the latest technological developments?’ These are all hidden reasons for rejections on the basis of age,” said Hugo. “I heard 25 different ways to say, “Hugo, you’re too old! Go and retire!’”

But the challenges are surmountable, as Hugo proved, and often worth the reward of new purpose and contribution. The key lies in careful planning, leveraging existing networks, and embracing a growth mindset. Also, as technology changes the nature of work, continuous learning and adapting are crucial.

Career arcs are taking new directions thanks to people like Lynn, Bibi, Farid, and Cameron. Their stories vividly illustrate the satisfaction and invigoration that come from pursuing passions and using skills in new, fulfilling ways.

With older adults showing higher job satisfaction and less stress, there is a lesson for people in every stage of life: There’s tremendous value in aligning your work with your passion.

So why wait to do what you love? The time to act is now—whether you’re 25, 65, or anywhere in between. Consider challenging yourself. Embrace your aspirations, and let your career reflect your true interests and capabilities. After all, fulfillment is ageless, and the right moment to pursue what you truly care about is whenever you decide to take that step.

Written by Julie Norwell
Julie Norwell is senior writer & content manager at The Barrett Group.
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