It's among the most persistent questions to dog workers at or near retirement: What comes next?
Phyllis Moen wants to help. The University of Minnesota sociology professor believes too few baby boomers interested in an encore career know how to answer that question. At the same time, too few businesses and communities know how to take advantage of their skills and experience.
This fall, Moen, author of the 2016 book "Encore Adulthood: Boomers on the Edge of Risk, Renewal and Purpose," launched a program for those 50 and older to try to bridge that divide. Moen sees the program, called the Advanced Careers Initiative, as part of a broader goal to change the way people think about using colleges and universities as they get older.
Q: What do the participants do in the program?
A: The University of Minnesota Advanced Careers Initiative is a nine-month program that offers time in the classroom, partnerships with undergrads and weekly discussions with experts from across campus. During spring semester, the participants [known as fellows] work at a nonprofit organization as part of a "midternship" — an internship for midcareer professionals. This is the inaugural year for the program, with 10 professionals, most of them from the Twin Cities area. One drives in from Red Wing, one moved here from Vermont and one flies in each week from Virginia. We plan to bring in 20 fellows each year. Some have already applied for 2018-19.
Q: What are their backgrounds?
A: One is a psychologist, two are attorneys, one works in communications, one in marketing and advertising. One had a job in international development and stopped to do long-term care for a family member. Another has been active in the volunteer community supporting her husband in his high-powered job and now she's looking to launch her own career. One was unexpectedly and involuntarily "retired" in a company layoff. They range in age from 50 to 72. A lot of them are seeking paid work that will also provide more flexible and less demanding second acts, that provide a sense of meaning.
Q: What's your vision for the program?
A: I'm very worried about this great pool of talent — this large baby boomer cohort, and those who are coming in their wake — just sitting on the sidelines of society. That's our model of retirement: You exit one time, all at once, and then you go and have fun. Surveys show that 70 percent of older workers say they want to do some kind of engaging work in retirement, but most don't do that because they don't know what's next and don't know how to get there. These people are not young — but they're not old, either. And our society simply has no blueprint for this stage of life, what I call encore adulthood. Many nonprofits and businesses don't know how to hire older workers or young retirees. They're not used to this. My vision is to support boomers who are navigating transitions, provide a talent pool to meet community challenges and build a model for public universities to open their doors to people of all ages, providing transformational intergenerational learning.
Q: How does the internship part of the program work?
A: This is the first program like this in the country. There are academic programs at Harvard and Stanford that are really aimed at top-level executives. And there are phenomenal internship programs that provide hands-on work. We're combining the best of both worlds. I have talked to former fellows from other schools, and they said it was a life-changing experience, but they are left where they began — not knowing next steps. I realized we needed to incorporate some kind of experiential public-engagement learning. We'll help fellows find internships in their communities, even if they're snow birds or live out-of-state. We're looking for particular projects that let the fellows use their talents and expertise in a way that makes a meaningful contribution to the nonprofit.
Q: How does this benefit the University of Minnesota?
A: As a public, land grant university, we have these values of both community engagement and solving social challenges. I'm aiming to transform the university so we think of learning as something that happens across the life course, so that people come back to colleges and universities at different points in their lives to retool.
Q: It's early, but what have you learned so far?
A: We're charging $7,500 for this inaugural year, but that is well below the fixed costs. Right now, we're benefiting from the largesse of existing organizations at the university, such as using the space of the Life Course Center. Eventually, we'll have to pay for rooms. We've hired an executive director, support staff, student researchers; there's lunches, printing out materials, maintaining a website. It's all adding up. Our goal is not to charge $62,000 like they do at Harvard or Stanford. We hope to work with corporations that might sponsor their retirement-eligible employees as a way of helping them move into post-career activity. We'd also like to partner with employers, foundations and alumni to create fellowships for those who can't afford the cost.