When he decided to retire in 2003 after working as an accountant for 35 years, Michel Idiokitas, now 70, wasn’t ready to slow down. So he traded his office for a school, heading into the classroom to tutor underprivileged children who were struggling to learn how to read. Idiokitas, who’s been teaching for five years now, found his job through Experience Corps, a nonproft that has 2,000 volunteers ages 55 or older tutoring and mentoring children to ensure that they’re able to read by the third grade.
The organization is one of a crop of new groups catering to a growing desire among aging boomers: the need to reinvent themselves after they retire. Such targeted firms were essentially nonexistent a decade ago. Today, they number in the dozens and offer services that range from one-on-one coaching to mentoring, workshops, classes, and even job placement. With 78 million Baby Boomers retiring in the next 20 years, the industry’s future looks promising. “It will be a huge business for companies doing this,” Nancy Graham, editor of AARP The Magazine, says.
New retirees often feel they’ve “fallen off a cliff,” adds Judy Goggin, vice president of Civic Ventures, a think tank focused on boomers and what are called “encore careers.” Many Boomers won’t even use the word “retire,” because it’s associated with slowing down. They want another professional challenge, but until recently, there weren’t any established institutions to help them.
Experience Corps, the service that helped Idiokitas land his teaching gig, was originally part of Civic Ventures but spun off as its own nonprofit company in 2009. CEO Lester Strong says volunteers from a range of incomes, education levels, and ethnicities are attracted to the work by the belief that there’s no greater predictor for success in life than whether you can read, adding that knowing a child needs their help is particularly motivating. A study by Johns Hopkins Schools of Medicine and Public Health of 125 Experience Corps members found that the experiences related to the members’ new work provided such benefits as better overall health, higher activity levels, and a bigger social network.
Nora Hannah, the chief consortium officer for Experience Matters, a network of nonprofits, corporations, and individuals that provides service opportunities for retirees, says many of the older volunteer organizations that focus on retirees operate on an outdated model of civic engagement. They provide low-level tasks for volunteers, rewarding them with a pin for hours of service or volunteer luncheons, when what many boomers may want is to derive more meaning through significant work, she says: “We’re trying to create a sea change, a psychological shift about how we view community talent.”
Carol Greenfield, founder of Discovering What’s Next, an organization that assists retirees through volunteer-driven programs and peer-to-peer information, echoes Hannah’s philosophy, adding that people at this stage of life don’t have the same support systems that young students have when they head to college and are considering their first careers. That’s where organizations like hers come in.
But not all prospective retirees are looking for the same type of fulfillment. Many are willing to pay someone to help them develop their interests. One fee-based service is Vocation Vacations, which offers two- to three-day mentorship experiences, allowing new retirees to put their passion into practice. The group has 500 expert mentors, from a Grammy-winning composer to a Tony-award-winning director, winemakers, and photographers, who provide mentorship experiences to thousands of people a year, says Brian Kurth. “People realize this is an investment, [and] you can’t get this stuff out of a book.”
Vocation Vacations customers pay an average of $899 for two days of mentoring, plus airfare and lodging. Jerry Shaw, a 62-year-old living in Las Vegas, had mentorships with both a wedding photographer and a commercial photographer. A pharmaceutical sales representative for 27 years, Shaw opted for retirement when faced with a layoff in 2008. He wanted to turn a part-time hobby into a regular career. “If you’re going to get into a business and want to do quality work, you need to learn from the best,” he says. Since then, he’s launched a wedding and portrait photography business.
Another group, Revolutionize Retirement, provides coaching services and “retirement boot camps,” which are essentially weekend retreats that offer positive, creative, and successful aging strategies. The weekend retreats cost $250 (room and board is extra), while a personal coaching session with founder Lin Schreiber is $500 for 90 minutes.
While most of these services offer significant attention and guidance, Patricia Grace, founder and CEO of Aging With Grace, a group providing resources for elder care, says boomers should be skeptical about fee-based services. She suggests approaching an organization that specializes in the area you might like to pursue and asking for a case study that provides an example of someone they’ve helped and how they did it. “If they promise to do everything for everybody, then you know you want to stay away from that,” she says.
Of course, not all retirees want or need a professional to chart out a satisfying course. Roger Strube, a 68-year-old former doctor living in Punta Gorda, Fla., now builds boats for disabled sailors. Unlike many retired doctors, whom he says often have no life outside their profession, he always knew sailing would become his avocation. “Some of us have a real good idea of what we want to do,” he says. “Others are clueless.” But he still thinks these organizations have value, particularly for the latter category: “If you can help a person explore and get in touch with where they’d find joy in their remaining years, it may make sense for a considerable part of the population.”