Midlife: Time to Start a New Career

They were the children of the Organization Men, those gray-flannel-clad climbers whose zeal for corporate life remains a defining image of the 1950s. But by the time the first baby boomers began entering the work force in the late 1960s, times were changing. College degrees had become more prevalent. Women were seeking out careers that were once off-limits. Industrial jobs were giving way to even more office work. And America's postwar fascination with materialism—look, there's another new car in the driveway of another newly built suburban home!—was on the wane. When it came to work, baby boomers wanted something more than steady paychecks, predictable promotions and the gold watch. Many wanted their work to be, above all, meaningful.

That quest continues today. Boomers are a wide demographic: the oldest, at 60, are nearing the age when their parents probably thought about retiring, while the youngest, at 42, are just hitting the sweet spot of their careers. Some are fantastically wealthy; some struggle in poverty. But most have approached their working lives with a self-determination unlike any previous generation—and for many, that means starting a whole new career in midlife. "There are tens of millions of people involved here, [asking], "What am I going to do with the rest of my life?' " says Richard Fein, author of "The Baby Boomer's Guide to the New Workplace." Every day, a few more boomers blast those "new contact info" e-mails out as they pursue new professional adventures. Some are trading high-paying jobs to move into nonprofits or government positions. Some are starting businesses—or trying to parlay an individual passion (for quilting, say) into a way to make a living. Not all these moves are voluntary: for many people nowadays, the journey toward a new career begins with the pain of a pink slip.

And not everyone will find what they're seeking. Harvard political scientist Russell Muirhead, author of "Just Work," says the notion that one's occupation should deliver something more meaningful than a paycheck began with the 19th-century Romantics, but it's boomers who've truly embraced this ideal. "They expect in some sense that their careers will help them realize their authentic self," he says. Muirhead thinks it's an attitude that's a bit overblown; while many of us whine that our jobs just don't excite us, it's worth recalling how happy our Depression-era grandparents were to have any job that delivered a reliable paycheck. But for a generation that invented the midlife crisis, career changes will no doubt continue.

Many of these job changes are driven by altruism. For 28 years, Bruce Pasternack worked at Booz Allen, a management-consulting firm. He counseled CEOs and wrote two books on management. But in the late 1990s, he began doing pro bono consulting work for the Special Olympics, the charity that encourages athletic competition for mentally impaired individuals. Soon Pasternack was on the Special Olympics board. Last year, as the group began to hunt for a new CEO, he mentioned his potential interest to the then CEO Tim Shriver. "What else could you do with your life in the next few years that would have as great an impact on the world?" Shriver asked him. This week marks Pasternack's first anniversary as CEO. He's taken a big pay cut, endured a heavy travel schedule and posed for hundreds of photos with Special Olympians. But at 59, he's happy. "It's more than met my expectations with respect to the personal satisfaction," he says.

For some career-changers, public-sector jobs are also a way to give back. This fall Waynewright Malcolm, 42, will begin teaching pre-algebra to eighth graders in Pembroke Pines, Fla., earning $38,000 a year. He can afford the meager paycheck because in his last job, as treasurer at the home-building giant Lennar, he made millions in salary and stock options. "A part of me has always wanted to teach—it's been in my heart a long time," he says. "My wife was very supportive when I told her what my plans were, but she challenged me—she wanted to make sure I was doing this for all the right reasons." Looking ahead to the fall, he's confident he is.

Traditionally, making a career change required finding another job. But for the generation that counts iconic company founders like Bill Gates and Michael Dell among its members, there's often a smarter route: creating a job of your own by starting a new business. David Thompson got a taste of start-up life when he was chief marketing officer at WebEx, a hot Web-conferencing firm. In 2000, WebEx was slated to go public—potentially making Thompson and his colleagues rich—but as the tech market softened, the IPO was delayed. "I had this huge emotional reaction," says Thompson, now 44. Reappraising his lifestyle, he saw a guy who ate horribly, slept too little and rarely exercised. So he took a nine-month sabbatical, doing yoga and losing 40 pounds. Soon afterward he launched his own firm, Genius.com, Inc., which develops software to support salespeople. As his own boss, he often works from home and schedules time for quiet reflection. "Everybody is so damn busy, no one thinks about what they really want," he says. Now, after years of craziness, he says, "my life finally has some balance."

That serenity is hardly the norm among folks who Inc. themselves. Many say their transition from having a well-defined job to being master of everything (from fixing the copy machine to balancing the books) adds to their stress, at least initially. Seven months ago, when Larry Spear, the 45-year-old vice president of sales and marketing for a Florida utility, left to create his own telecom start-up, he knew he'd miss his prestigious title and his six-figure salary. But at BFE Telecom (it stands for Black Financial Empowerment), he's launching projects like the Black 411, which lets callers throughout the United States dial a special number to locate black-owned businesses they can patronize. "I feel alive—I feel like what I'm doing matters," he says. "I'd like my kids to think, 'Hey, my dad did something more than make money. He did something very cool'."

Entrepreneur Randy Boudouris has found the fulfillment he lacked in the early years of his career. Boudouris, 50, studied art and music in college and hoped to be a rock star. But soon he was married with kids and needed a real job, so he signed on with a family printing business. He left after a dispute in 1998, and now he heads his own company, inventing products like wafer-thin magnetic coatings. "This is the most fun I've ever had," Boudouris says. "As far as I'm concerned, the second half of my life is the best part ... You're never too old to change."

For some, career change is driven by the sense that they've been doing the same thing for far too long. Jean Blosser, 59, spent 35 years in academia as a speech-pathology professor and administrator. "I was kind of dying on the vine—I needed something more," she says. One day she read a newspaper story about Progressus Therapy, a speech-therapy firm. "That was that 'aha' event," she says, and she began researching how to apply for a job that didn't necessarily even exist. Convinced that her specialized training and leadership skills made her a perfect fit, she persisted in asking for meetings to explain why the firm needed her. Today she's VP for therapy programs and quality. "We created something that was a perfect fit for me and for the company," she says. "My move was risky, but it was worth it."

Some job changes begin with an ominous summons to a conference room, where an HR executive dispatches workers to the purgatory of unemployment. These corporate executions were rare when boomers' parents ruled the workplace; back then, companies "furloughed" manufacturing workers when times were slow but brought them back when sales picked up. Today, in contrast, many companies slice the white-collar head count in good times and bad. "Over the years, the permanent separation of people from their jobs, abruptly and against their wishes, gradually became a standard management practice," writes New York Times economics reporter Louis Uchitelle in his new book, "The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences." Since the 1980s, he figures, more than 30 million workers have been downsized—the majority of them baby boomers.

For some of these folks, the new gigs they land don't quite get them back to even. Bob Dew, 52, was laid off as a welder at a Fortune 500 company in Cleveland in 2002. After 30 years there, he draws a $1,300-a-month pension, but to supplement that income he works as a $7-an-hour shift supervisor at a drugstore; during baseball season he works a second job as an usher at a minor-league park. "It's actually a lot of fun," he says, and since neither job is physically demanding, he can probably do both into old age. But he now eschews name-brand products for generic and has put off his hopes to travel. His retirement plans are "dramatically different" since his layoff, he says. "Everything fell apart, and now I'm very guarded with cash."

Some boomers deal with a layoff by trying to turn their passions into careers. Ellen Satter, 44, spent more than 18 years as a computer programmer for NASDAQ before being laid off on April 25. "I could see the writing on the wall," she says, describing how her team had been cut back over time, with more work piled on survivors like her. To prepare for the inevitable, Satter took night classes to earn an M.B.A. Now, with a generous severance package as a cushion, she's set out to create Career 2.0. "I realized I could do anything," she says. "I'm thrilled." She is about to lease a storefront space, and in October she'll open a scrapbooking store. "I can't see how I can get bored with scrapbooking," she says.

Most of the newbie entrepreneurs who are making these leaps say they have no illusions about the economics involved. Yes, there's more upside if a new business flourishes, but the trade-off is less financial security. Russ Klettke, 47, escaped a job as a corporate-communications executive to become a certified fitness trainer and research assistant at Northwestern University. On any given day he may be studying how strength training affects hardening of the arteries, or teaching a spin class, training clients one-on-one or working on a follow-up to his 2004 men's diet book. "Being split up between different gigs is exciting," he says. Financially, his new life feels more precarious, "but I wake up every morning and a list pops into my head of all the things I have to do that day, and I like that."

Of course, the people who make these career segues aren't the only ones affected—many have spouses and families who share the joys, pains and risks. Jay and Kendra Jeffcoat have been married for 38 years, but for the past two they've had a commuter marriage so that Jay, a 60-year-old lawyer, can stay in San Diego and work for the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center, while Kendra works two hours east as a VP of academic affairs at Imperial Valley College. They see each other on weekends and have one "date night" each week midway between their homes. "She supports me and I support her," says Jay, who's looking forward to Kendra's full-time return to San Diego in July. For Tina Thompson, her husband's job transfer from Los Angeles to northern California in 2002 gave her the chance to ditch her teaching career to open an organic-kosher-vegetarian bakery in Pacific Grove. Now her goal is to "make others happy with my cooking," she says.

With life expectancies rising and traditional pension plans evaporating, these folks may need to keep their new careers going for years to come. Most experts predict baby boomers will work longer than their parents, and not just for financial necessity, but also to prevent boredom. According to a report called "The Future of Retirement" by the HSBC bank, "later life is increasingly seen as a time of opportunity and reinvention, rather than of rest and relaxation." The AARP says close to 70 percent of Americans plan to work at least part time during their "retirement" years—for money as well as a sense of purpose. Among human-resource pros, there are countless task forces studying ways that companies can better accommodate seniors. The AARP even gives annual awards to the Best Employers for Workers Over 50; last year's winners included Volkswagen, Michelin and Whirlpool.

Aside from targeting firms with a senior-friendly track record, there are other steps aspiring career-changers can take. Fein says that just as college students routinely do internships to explore careers, older adults should test-drive new jobs, too. "It's important for people who are thinking about doing something new to try it out in a low-cost, low-risk environment," he says, which often means keeping your day job in the meantime. Sometimes the results will surprise you. Fein recalls a woman intent on opening her own greeting-card store. After working weekends in a similar shop, she realized she didn't really like dealing with customers. Fein says the happiest career changers are those who are jumping toward a new job, rather than trying to escape an existing one. (Click here to see Fein's career-change questionnaire.)

Embracing this advice has helped Janice Stein as she's moved through more careers than she ever expected to have. Stein, 47, has worked as an engineer for Northrop, then as a marketer with several Silicon Valley companies and a Norwegian videoconferencing firm. Two years ago, tired of nonstop travel and her constantly ringing cell phone, she quit to start a business finishing quilts that hobbyists had sewn. "At some point, you have to step back and decide to have a life," she says. She's enjoyed that self-created gig, but now she wants health benefits and more security, so she's going back to school to become certified in medical imaging. She'll be using technology that didn't exist when she came out of college a generation ago—just the kind of adventure these self-determined boomers have grown to welcome.