Chris inherited her family's farm, but has no interest in farming. So Chris, an artist, decided to transform the rural property into studio and housing space for artists, featuring a kiln, looms, painting areas and a metalworking shop, surrounded by nature trails decorated with her partner's original metal sculptures.
Jim, a retired engineer, had a longtime hobby of testing home energy-saving devices, applying his engineer's skills to sort the valuable from the junk. He decided to start a website giving consumers access to the information he had collected, so they could put it to use in their own homes.
Lynn's son died in his 30s of ataxia, a rare degenerative disease. He had been writing a book but was unable to finish it, so Lynn finished the book for him. Then she got involved with a national ataxia association and began traveling the country speaking on the subject and promoting the book.
Though pursuing very different types of projects, Jim, Chris and Lynn have something in common. They're all navigating midlife transitions, keeping engaged and productive through work that give them a sense of purpose.
"Boomers want to keep learning, keep growing, keep producing," said Carol Kronholm, a freelance career-transition teacher and coach whose students have included Jim, Chris and Lynn. Kronholm specializes in helping adults in their 50s and up plan second careers or civic-involvement projects that make good use of their interests and talents.
Kronholm has firsthand experience with that kind of transition. In 2008, she retired from the Anoka-Hennepin School District, where she'd worked as a career-development teacher. She'd long been hearing about the coming flood of retiring boomers. With her heart still in teaching and her skills centered around career development, she decided to switch from high-school seniors to the other kind of seniors – the ones who have 30 or 40 or 50 years of job experience behind them but are ready to do something else in the next stage of life.
Kronholm began teaching "encore careers" through a number of organizations, including the St. Paul-based Vital Aging Network, which offers a program called "Evolve: Reigniting Self & Community." Kronholm teaches the eight-month course, which guides people from identifying interests and goals to launching their projects.
Most people, as they near retirement, spend some time considering how they'll manage their finances, but far fewer devote thought to how they'll manage their time, said Kate Schaefers, a psychologist who specializes in coaching students through midlife transitions. While still working, they may have looked forward to unstructured days and leisure activities. But after a while, those can get old. Many look at the decades stretching ahead of them and find themselves longing for more meaningful activity.
"People underestimate what work gives them," including a sense of accomplishment, a social life, even a form of identity, Schaefers said. "It pays the bills, but it also gives a sense of structure to our lives. When that structure goes away, people really struggle. For a lot of people, they feel rudderless."
Kronholm recalled a man who retired and moved to Arizona, planning to golf. "He said, 'I golfed for two years. Then I thought, well, that was fun, but I have all this time left and I've got to do something.'"
She helps students figure out what to do next by helping them define their talents and skills, list activities they enjoy, identify values and goals that stir their passions. Do they like to work with fabric or wood? Do they enjoy tutoring children?
"It has to come from that place of self-interest," she said. "I'll ask them, 'What were you doing the last time you lost track of time?'"
Some come into the classes with plans already in mind, sometimes goals they had postponed for the decades while they worked to support their families. Others have no idea what they want to do and may even take the course multiple times before inspiration strikes. Occasionally students who meet in class wind up partnering on projects of mutual fascination.
Kronholm helps the students figure out how to turn these ideas into meaningful, productive work. Each case is individual, of course, although there are some common patterns: students evaluate their own leadership styles, identify communities to help with their projects, start working through the practical steps to achieving their goals.
Many of Schaefers' clients are seeking to supplement their retirement benefits with a paying job or business. "Some want to shift into nonprofit work, some imagine starting a nonprofit business, starting a business, starting a franchise. Some are looking at geographic shifts — they want to find a way to work at the lake, but earn a little income. A lot are looking toward consulting or teaching."
But money is not the only objective, or even necessarily the primary one.
"A sense of purpose is really important," Schaefers said. "It's a reason to get up in the morning."