Senior man deep in thought © Cha Cha Royale-Brand X-Corbis

Years ago, Americans worked for one company or union – and then retired with a plaque, a pension and a pat on the back.

Today, though, with longer life spans, Americans are “retiring” and going to work at jobs or enterprises that fulfill new dreams. 

Dakota Hoyt, 68, is a case in point. She spent more than 30 years as a successful school administrator before retiring with a handsome pension. When a friend started a training business for teachers, Hoyt began working part time for the organization. The friend eventually grew too sick to continue running the business at about the time Hoyt got her “second wind” and wanted to increase her role. Her story is included in the new book about later-life choices "The Wonder of Aging: A New Approach to Embracing Life After Fifty" by Michael Gurian.

Ultimately, Hoyt was chosen to succeed her friend as executive director. “What I thought would be exhausting isn’t,” says Hoyt. “I’m doing what I’m called in this life to do, again, and it fulfills me. I love it and will do it until I can’t do it anymore.”

This post-retirement stage of work actually has a name, according to Gurian. He calls it “the age of distinction.” 

“Like many others, Dakota Hoyt is going gangbusters,” Gurian told The Fiscal Times. “For many people in the 65-to-80 age bracket, this is about distinguishing oneself and leaving a legacy. People like her are certainly glad to make a living, glad to have a business plan -- but this is also about their lives as elders, with something still to offer society and others.” 

Management consultants, career experts and others are increasingly seeing new post-retirement careers play out.  

“Retirement can be the ultimate career reboot,” says Michele Woodward, an executive coach in the Washington, D.C., area. “When people have rigidly defined themselves by their lifelong career, as in, ‘I’m a doctor, damn it’ -- by shifting that position, they can totally change their lives. There can be a new freedom in calling themselves a ‘former doctor’ who can now do something else.”

Today, “we can have a whole series of careers throughout our lives,” adds Woodward, noting that Lou Gerstner, the former head of IBM, recently bristled in an interview with The Washington Post  when the word “retirement” was used to describe his current situation. “I don’t use that word,” Gerstner responded. Instead, he said he prefers the term “portfolio life.” 

“We’ll be seeing more of this,” says Woodward. “This is a radical change from the experience of our parents and grandparents, whose working lives basically ended at retirement.” The good news is that “there’s a strong ability to continue earning and taking advantage of opportunities as they come along.”

Moving well past 'work'

Career professionals aren't the only ones changing things up later in life. Woodward recently got a LinkedIn notice from “a woman who had been at home with her kids for over 20 years and is now working as a mortgage loan officer at a large bank. She changed her definition of herself into something new and full of learning.” 

Gurian began collecting anecdotal evidence about these work changes in later life, then quantified his findings and researched the biology and psychology behind the shift. “At around age 65, at what’s typically been called retirement age, not only is the brain different than when we’re 55 -- we have a new psychological and emotional freedom,” says Gurian. “Many of us have supported a family, put the kids through college, had success in our respective fields -- we’ve done all that. Now we have enough income to concentrate on other things. We become much more focused on wanting to leave a legacy through this new focus.”

For successfully reinventing your career later in life, try these 10 tips from experts:
 
1.  Network, network, network. Workers of any age find this useful, but for those changing careers after age 50, it’s especially critical to reach out to a wide swath of professionals who may be able to offer advice, insights and lessons learned, as well as valuable connections.
 
2.  Polish your computer, technical and smartphone skills. Take courses if you need to or find a young person in your community or neighborhood who can share the basics of social media and which tech sites to frequent in order to learn the jargon and keep up with the latest ideas.
 
3.  Eliminate activities or engagements that don’t have the same meaning for you they once did, so you’re freer to pursue your real dreams. “It might mean letting go of some acquaintances or social circles that have become ‘duty’ rather than something you genuinely enjoy,” advises Gurian. In other words, pare back in order to move ahead.
 
4.  The same goes for possessions that have become cumbersome and a drain on your resources. If you have three cars but need just two -- or whatever the numbers are in your case -- take a hard look at doing some physical downsizing.
 
5.  Consider relocating if the right opportunity presents itself. Often a fresh location, assuming it makes sense for you economically and financially, can be a smart move now that you have the freedom to do it.
 
6.  Check out your local community colleges or universities for career-related events, featured speakers, one-day résumé brush-ups and the like. A few hours spent in like-minded company in a focused environment can do wonders.
 
7.  When was the last time you had a full physical or medical check-up? It’s not a bad idea when contemplating a complete career change to check in with your doctor or nurse practitioner. Consult with a nutritionist, too, to stay on top of your game. Keep up to date with preventive exams. If nothing else, this will give you peace of mind.
 
8.  Invest in some new clothes. That jacket you wore 10 years ago to your last big corporate shindig, for example, is probably not the right gear to show up in next week.
 
9.  Keep a positive frame of mind. Not only did Hoyt’s upbeat attitude help her adapt to an exciting new position, it also helped convince others she had the energy and mindset for a leadership role.
 
10.  Understand that this is a new stage of life and that, like all stages, after it will come yet another one, the age of “completion,” as Gurian calls it. In other words: This age-of-distinction period won’t last forever. Make the most of it.

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