Reskilling for encore careers for (what were once) retirement years

By Jane Figgis Research report 19 January 2012 ISBN 978 1 921955 91 4


Encouraging older workers to stay in the workforce has become a policy priority. At the same time, the life expectancy of Australians has increased dramatically over the past several decades, effectively inserting a new stage in the life course, often called the 'third age'. This report explores the possibility of using that third age to embark on an encore career, a concept originating in the United States. The author then focuses on the role the VET sector might play in developing encore careers in Australia.


About the research

Encouraging older workers to stay in the workforce has become a policy priority, not least because the life expectancy of Australians has increased dramatically over the past several decades, effectively inserting a new stage in life, often called the ‘third age’.

This report explores the possibility of using that third age to embark on an ‘encore’ career. The author describes the encore career concept and why it might be an attractive alternative to retirement or to continuing in the same job past the traditional age of retirement. Then, drawing on interviews with TAFE institutes and other registered training organisations, she discusses how the encore career concept might be enacted in Australia.

Key messages

  • Encore careers are well established in the United States, where they have been defined as work with a social purpose in the second half of life. This study suggests that Australians have a consistent and clear view about the basic shape of an encore career. It would:

    • be flexible, in terms of time, and allow for a sense of autonomy
    • start at or after the usual retirement age
    • involve a serious time commitment but not necessarily financial remuneration
    • take the person in fresh directions.
  • The vocational education and training (VET) sector may have a role to play in providing training for encore careers but such training will be difficult to accommodate within the current funding arrangements.

Despite an initial enthusiasm in TAFE institutes and other registered training organisations to develop programs that would help older Australians embark on encore careers, other priorities and a lack of resources meant that the idea generally has not been taken any further. Nevertheless, Jane Figgis has given us something to think about, with her alternative to the standard rhetoric of keeping older workers in their current jobs longer.

Tom Karmel

Managing Director, NCVER

Executive summary

Many initiatives have been put in place to encourage older Australians to remain in the workforce. These include raising the qualifying age for the age pension, making changes to the Superannuation Guarantee, establishing the high-level Consultative Forum on Mature Age Participation and providing employment services for older job seekers and workers. These initiatives were primarily intended for people up to the age when they become eligible for the age pension, currently age 65, but rising to age 67 by 2023.

This project focused on work people might undertake after that age. The remarkable change in life expectancy — 60 years ago only around 7% of people who reached the age of 65 lived to 90; that figure is now 25% and rising — has effectively inserted a new stage in the life course, a stage now often referred to as a person’s ‘third age’. The point is that there is now a period of some decades between mid-life and anything resembling traditional old age. Finding ways to use this longevity bonus which are of value to the individual and to society is what the Hon. Wayne Swan, Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer (2011), has called ‘harnessing the life experiences and intellectual capital of all older Australians’:

As more and more people grapple with what to do in their later years, we want to make sure people are supported to make the decisions that meet their circumstances … It means that we must constantly ask if there isn't more that government can do to create the active and engaging society that older Australians would choose to value and participate in.

Embarking on an encore career is one way of harnessing the value of older Australians. What is an encore career? This study began with the rough definition that it is, rather as it sounds, a fresh line of work after a person’s mid-life career for their (what were once) retirement years. As a starting point the definition worked well enough, but one purpose of the study was to refine the concept to suit the Australian context. In the United States, where the term originated, an encore career is defined quite specifically as work in the second half of life with a social impact, a social purpose ‘to get America back on track’. In the United States encore careers are backed by a large national organisation, Civic Ventures.

As expected, the image of an encore career that emerged in Australia is broad. What was imagined was not so much any particular field of work but the nature of that work. People expect it to be work they have a fair degree of control over — a sense of autonomy — and for it to be flexible in terms of time, leaving space for other activities and, indeed, for no activity at all. Further features of an Australian encore career are:

  • It is for a person’s ‘third age’: for the period that in the past coincided with leaving work fully behind, usually some time between the ages of 55 and 65. This phase is new and is still fairly uncharted territory, but there is a consensus that we should embrace it and acknowledge the fact of becoming older:

This longer life span is not ours simply so we can keep being a twenty-year-old for another seventy years. It’s to allow us to grow up and give back … a time to replant your life and re-fertilise the soil. (Dychtwald 2009)

  • It involves a serious time commitment: the point here is to distinguish an encore career from the way many retired people occasionally give their time here and there to particular causes — as valuable as some of that activity is. A rule of thumb is to suggest that an encore career is the equivalent of half-time employment, not necessarily every week, but over the course of a year, lasting for a number of years. It is not a temporary transition (a phasing-out) to retirement.
  • It takes the person in fresh directions: of course, an encore career will build on the person’s knowledge, skill and experience, but an element of personal change, of growth and renewal is inherent in the concept. The idea that an encore career requires learning — non-formal or formal — is exactly what makes it attractive to many people.

There are issues these parameters leave unresolved: does it have to be paid work? Can it be work undertaken only for pay? The answer seems to be ‘it depends’. It depends on the individual’s attitude. If it really stretches the person to accomplish something they believe is worthwhile, volunteer work can fit the bill; indeed, it fits nicely with the drive in the volunteer sector to add much more challenging tasks to what is often fairly routine helping-out. If it is work that becomes central to who the person is, it is an encore career.

The VET sector as provider of encore careers programs

While the study began with the idea that encore careers were one way for people in their third age to put their skills and experience to use and to develop new skills and talents, its specific focus was to investigate whether TAFE (technical and further education) institutes, and perhaps other registered training organisations, would be interested in developing encore career programs and services.

The response of TAFE institutes and others in the vocational education and training (VET) sector when I introduced the idea of encore careers and the possibility of their developing encore career programs was extremely positive, exemplified by the senior executive who announced ‘this is a no-brainer!’. In fact, I was invited to speak about encore careers at a number of VET conferences and forums. There was a quite genuine and intuitive feel that facilitating encore careers ‘makes sense’, ‘it just resonates’.

There was a remarkable consistency, too, in managers of registered training organisations believing that the best place to start is ‘with ourselves’. Many training organisations have significant numbers of staff approaching retirement. Developing an encore career program for their own older staff was considered to be a way to ‘give something back’ to retiring staff. Another client base for an encore career program which several training providers considered is the cohort of older people currently working in industry who might be recruited and reskilled for encore careers with the training provider, especially in areas that are difficult to staff well.

Encore career programs offered by community colleges in the United States, and those considered by registered training organisations, are of two basic types:

  • Career development services to help people in the 50+ age cohort find fresh direction: these provide participants with opportunities for self-reflection to enable them to think about their interests, motivation and skills, typically by working through a series of exercises in small groups. It is the conversation with others in a similar position that gives these programs their richness. Most include follow-up one-on-one career counselling. This kind of career counselling, it should be said, is already available to all Australians and through all life stages, although few older people either know about it or avail themselves of the service.
  • Training programs that reskill people who have decided upon the kind of encore career they want. These are tailored for this older cohort in three ways:
    • adding support services to an existing program: often this involves mentoring, but equally if not more important is an institutional environment that recognises and utilises the unique attributes of older experienced learners without actually singling them out
    • designing fast tracks to certification: many members of this cohort do not want to waste time
    • creating a program for a specific encore career and, often, for a defined clientele: overseas examples include taking people retiring from engineering and technology careers and retraining them to become maths and science teachers; retraining primary care nurses to be clinical nursing instructors.

Some TAFE institutes, and one policy directorate, began serious planning with a view to providing at least a trial encore career program. One institute actually organised a forum on encore careers for institute staff, which I was happy to present. Three people turned up for it. The lesson here is the importance of a well-considered marketing campaign. In this instance staff simply received an email, out of the blue, announcing the forum. That was all. Community colleges have learned that marketing encore career programs is a fine art. That institute, at least, got as far as organising a forum. Elsewhere, despite the original enthusiasm about the potential value of developing an encore career program, interest faded, in some cases sooner, in others later. The prime reason was other more pressing priorities. These priorities drained the time and energy required to take on another major commitment. Even a trial program, they realised, would be a serious undertaking. Follow-up interviews have confirmed that those who liked the idea in the first place are still attracted to it and would like to find the space to progress it.

Cost might eventually have been an issue and some thought was given to potential funding models in these initial discussions. For example, it may be possible to offer an encore career program on a fee-for-service basis or locate it within the existing Access Program Certificate or establish sponsoring partnerships with skills councils, chambers of commerce and industry, local councils and others.

Infrastructure underpinning encore careers

The Treasurer’s statement about harnessing the life experiences and intellectual capital of all older Australians asked what government could do in this regard. While there are policy implications for government (especially in regards to workers compensation and insurance regimes), the focus needs to be on the three segments of society critical to building an infrastructure that enables older Australians to find the kind of meaningful serious work that has, in this research, been labelled an encore career. Indeed, they are the infrastructure:

  • Individuals in or approaching their third age: these people, and the family and friends who influence them, need to understand (and help in the evolution of) the concept of an encore career and its potential benefits so they come to demand programs and services which enable them to imagine and achieve innovative and sustaining encore careers.
  • Enterprises capable of developing opportunities for third age encore careers (paid or unpaid): the eradication of age discrimination is a first step here, but only a first. There needs to be a positive embrace of the new roles and responsibilities older people might assume (and invent). Establishing a routine of using work ability — actual capacity for particular kinds of work — rather than mere age in assessing a person’s suitability would contribute greatly here.
  • Brokers interested in linking individuals with opportunities, which includes the provision of counselling, reskilling and access to other learning: TAFE institutes were the promising mechanism this study started with and, if the constraints under which they operate are loosened, they may yet prove to be natural leaders here. But there are other candidates, including small local panels which might be established informally/voluntarily to act as brokers.

But we all have a role to play, most critically in eradicating age-based stereotyping and in appreciating the arrival of a dynamic new stage in the life course. One of greatest barriers to moving past ageing stereotypes is that people often do not believe they are being ageist. They see their stereotyping as simply reflecting ‘the truth’ or ‘reality’. My suggestion is that they — and all of us — just reflect on this provocative thought from the physician Sherwin Nuland (2007):

What would it be like if we somehow had no way of marking the passage of years? How old would any of us think we were if we had no idea of how old we were? We could not act our age if we did not know our age.



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