Retirement once seemed so simple. You worked until it was time to say goodbye to your colleagues for the last time, sold your home, headed toward a warmer, cheaper climate and lived off your pension, Social Security and Medicare benefits.
Of course, this commonplace image of retirement is far stronger than the reality. For example, only a fraction of retirees ever moved into Sun Belt retirement communities. Most people preferred remaining in their home near their families and friends. The defined-benefit pension plan that rewarded employees for years of service was enjoyed by only about 10 percent of ordinary private-sector workers. Except for management, most ordinary workers didn't stay long enough at one company to earn a lush paycheck in retirement. Social Security checks were more important to the average retired household's bottom line.
The old image of retirement still exerts a nostalgic pull. But the popular conception of "retirement" is rapidly changing. The transition toward retirement is increasingly complex as people forge different work paths in their older years, including sticking with a full-time job, starting their own business, downshifting to part-time work, embracing a "bridge" career.
The growing interest in so-called encore careers or second acts — pick your favorite term — partly reflects financial pressure. Two bear markets and two recessions in less than a decade have convinced a majority of boomers that they'll need to earn an income well into the traditional retirement years. The driving force behind the work-longer movement is more positive, however: It's the desire to stay engaged, to do something that both provides meaning and an income.
An example of the pull the encore idea has was visible at an event organized by the nonprofit SHIFT on Monday with Marci Alboher, author of "The Encore Career Handbook: Making a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life.''
The panelists were social entrepreneur Todd Bol, co-founder of the Little Free Library (you've probably seen the small book exchange boxes on walks around town); Tene Wells, a current Bush fellow and former executive director of WomenVenture, and Jodi Harpstead, a 23-year veteran of Medtronic and currently chief executive officer at Lutheran Social Service.
The panelists offered much practical information about thinking through the realities of making a transition to a new job, a new career and starting your own business. Money helps. So does health insurance. A network of relatives, friends and colleagues is invaluable for finding work since half or more of all jobs come through such informal channels.
That said, a powerful theme developed during the evening: The power of conversation, of talk. Whenever Alboher and the panelists addressed a challenge to embracing an encore, the advice always ended up highlighting the importance of testing ideas out with friends, acquaintances, people you admire, people you know, often from very different walks of life and backgrounds.
Community is the core resource for boomers. An aging me-generation is fast becoming the connected us-generation. Talk is a necessary but not sufficient condition for entry into an encore career. You still have to act, react, adjust and embark on the next stage. But you don't have to make the transition alone.
Chris Farrell is economics editor for "Marketplace Money." His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.