Boomers, reinvent yourselves before it’s too late

The Bakersfield Californian
September 9, 2011

The idea of having a womb-to-tomb job is a thing of the past. In recent years, we have seen entire industries dry up and blow away. Young people entering the workforce today are expected to reinvent themselves several times over before they retire 50 or more years from now.

But this often is an unacceptable concept for boomers, particularly those in their mid-50s or older. And their resistance can imperil their ability to retire with some degree of financial security.

Recently I had a conversation with a long-time family friend. He is 64 years old and a self-employed engineer, who has two office employees, a secretary and an associate engineer.

My friend’s business is tied to the recession-plagued development industry. My friend has weathered ups and downs in the past, but he now is dipping into his retirement funds to keep his business’ doors open and his two employees paid.

I urged him close his business, let his employees go and work part-time for another company or reinvent himself, using his considerable skills and experience in a related field to replenish his retirement funds and stem his financial bleeding. So far, he is unconvinced.

I have another friend who is in his early 60s. His company downsized a couple of years ago and he was laid off. He is keeping the lights burning in his condo and food on his table by dipping into his savings. He also is receiving early — and that means reduced — Social Security benefits.

My friend has fixated on finding a full-time job, with full benefits, to replace the one he lost. I told him that he needs to step it down, take a part-time job, or reinvent himself. So far, I am wasting my breath.

Regrettably these scenarios are all too familiar. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics recently estimated that 6.3 million Americans in June had been unemployed for at least 27 weeks; 4.4 million of those Americans had been unemployed for more than a year.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, older people (ages 55 to 64) have a 25.5 percent longer unemployment duration than younger people. And these people, who should be stockpiling their assets for retirement, have much less ability to recover from dire economic setbacks.

If you have been laid off, or fear a layoff is looming for your company or public agency, and you are a mid- to late-boomer, you need to get realistic about your situation, your recovery strategy and your retirement plan.

Perhaps this story will inspire you; it did me when I read it in a Florida newspaper. Jan Rutter was a longtime singer and dancer on cruise ships when she lost her voice at 47 and could not perform. The setback was personally devastating. But she assessed her strengths and interests. She loved talking to people, and loved reading mystery and detective stories. She also joked that her wardrobe included many costumes that provide undercover disguises for her new career as a private detective. Her reinvention required her to take private investigator classes and begin networking through industry associations.

These are some steps you can take to develop a reinvention plan:

  • Seek financial advice. Ask an accountant or financial advisor to help assess your existing assets. What will be required to sustain you now and what will be required to sustain you in retirement? Will you continue to work, at least part-time, in retirement?
  • What is the future of your present career? Do you see jobs opening up, or disappearing? Many industries, such as those in the media, are disappearing or radically changing.
  • What else can you do? What skills do you have? Are they adaptable to other industries? Do research to determine opportunities in new or related industries. The Internet can provide valuable resources. But so can trade groups and personal contacts. Get out there and talk to people.
  • Should you go back to school? Hundreds of thousands of people over 50 are turning to college programs to improve or reinvent their job skills. But before you sign up, do your homework. Will the new job pay enough to recover your college costs? Do you plan on working long enough to repay your debt? If the answers are yes, go for it. If you are not sure, look for free or cost-effective ways of obtaining new skills training, such as auditing “no credit” courses.
  • Should you start your own business? This is an increasingly popular option for boomers. The key is to have a business plan that will actually generate business. Don’t let your new business dig your financial hole deeper. Keep your overhead down and your income up.

Becoming your own boss requires you to do your homework. Research business opportunities. Develop a realistic business plan.

Resources exist to help boomers reinvent themselves in these tough economic times. One of my favorites for inspiration is the website www.civicventures.org. The Bakersfield office of the U.S. Small Business Development Center (www.csub.edu/sbdc) can help boomer entrepreneurs analyze ideas and develop business plans. But key to personal retirement planning that includes boomer reinvention is the advice of an accountant, attorney or financial planner.