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Second acts: How (and why) boomers are embracing encore careers

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Thirty years ago, when Ron Cordes got his start in the financial services industry, he had similar goals to most people in that line of business — to serve people, help them build nest eggs for their retirement and make a little money for himself along the way.

In reviewing his career path, Cordes did alright by himself. But as much as he enjoyed the work and enjoyed working with clients, something was nagging at him.

“In my 40s,” Cordes tells me, “I decided at 50 I wanted to re-pivot and set up a foundation to focus on global poverty.”

Cordes, you see, is among a growing number of baby boomers who are finding (to turn a famous F. Scott Fitzgerald quote on its head) that there are second acts in American lives.

Over the years Cordes had grown his business, AssetMark Investment Services, and eventually sold it to Genworth Financial in 2006. As part of the deal he was kept on in a strategic role at Genworth where he is co-chairman of Genworth Financial Wealth Management, Inc., which holds more than $24 billion of assets under management.

But the majority of his time, he says, is spent with his family foundation, Cordes Foundation, and as a pro bono evangelist for helping retirement-age people find fulfilling work in their second careers.

His personal mission, he says, “is to be a leading global voice to give people a conscience.” He knew early on that working toward ending global poverty was his calling, but he also knew that many people who are socially conscious and in his shoes financially don’t know where, exactly, to put their money or their efforts.

“What I want to do is help build the infrastructure and make the connections so it will make it easier for people to move forward.”

The boomers

According to Cordes, the baby boomer generation is in the perfect position to handle this idea of the socially conscious second career. As a boomer, Cordes knows what makes the generation tick. He knows, going back to their rebellious and turbulent decades of the ‘60s and ‘70s that they want to see change take place. And, from their position of nearing what we’ve previously defined as retirement age, they’re able to shape the landscape the way they have throughout their lives.

“The boomer generation has moved through their lifecycle redefining every stage of life as we know it,” Cordes says. “I assume that they will redefine retirement as well in a world where ‘retirement’ could now be decades and decades long.”

When Cordes did his soul searching in his 40s, he looked at “50 as halftime.” He understands that some people want their golf courses and their RVs and their circumnavigation of the globe as retirement.

“Yes, that’s a good time in your life for six or nine months,” he says.” But eventually you have to get on with life. It’s almost impossible to look at that as a way of life for 30 years.”

The platform

In recent years, Cordes has become something of a poster boy and an evangelist for, a nonprofit organization that promotes second acts for the greater good. He serves on the organization’s board of directors and speaks at events such as the Milken Institute Global Conference, where he can proselytize about making the most of your second career.

Marc Freedman, the organization’s founder and CEO, says “everything is shifting dramatically,” regarding people and their retirement. Freedman is fascinated by how the stages of life are under revision these days. “People are more aware of greater longevity. We are now in an era where half of the kids born since 2002 will see 100.”

With so many people living so much longer it’s inevitable to Freedman that “retirement-age” people take a hard look at what they can do with their lives — and what better way than in giving back?

Perhaps the best way to describe the impetus and the drive behind Encore is found in science fiction writer William Gibson’s quote, “the future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed.”

What about the little guy?

Freedman says retirement is no longer a cutoff. It’s a place where people embrace work that is more meaningful to them.

He says that, from a psychological point, mortality becomes real to you. “You know you’re going to die. You begin to realize this more concretely. You develop questions of ‘If I’m going to work longer, what kind of work am I going to do?’ You realize you might have another 20 good years. So you better getting going.”

On the surface, the idea of giving back at midlife sounds great. I tell Freedman as much, but I also ask an inevitable question: “Isn’t this something for rich people to do in retirement?”

Freedman’s heard this one before. He knows wealthy boomers are in a unique position to embrace social change, but that an encore career is for the little guy, too. Not everyone can start a foundation like Ron Cordes. For the rest of us, Freedman says, “encore careers are about passion, purpose and a paycheck.”

Currently, almost 9 million people have already moved into encore careers, according to Freedman’s research, and another 31 million want to but struggle with the transition.

For the people without Cordes’ resources, Encore offers options.

“We know we need to do a better job of helping people to navigate this transition. Those people in the working class and middle class will have to work and work for a lot longer. They face questions of what to do for that period.”

One thing Encore has done is partnered with more than 1,200 community colleges nationwide to offer programs of study that boomers can transition to in a second career.

“Some people say that the aging workforce gets in the way of younger workers. We don’t see it that way. We think we’re tapping into a windfall of talent.”

A second way Encore is helping in the transition is through fellowships they view as “internships for grownups.” One company that has embraced this model is Intel Corp., which has developed a program to offer fellowships to all U.S. employees “who are retiring and wish to transition to a new stage of work with local nonprofit organizations.”

Advisors and second careers

Cordes says financial advisors are uniquely positioned to help guide clients in second careers. “With financial advisors, the industry needs to redefine how to think about retirement planning.”

Right now, he says, it’s all about the numbers, the bottom line. He repeats a plan too often reeled off: “Tell me about the assets, and your hopes for retirement, and I’ll plug in the numbers to make sure you have money in retirement.”

Those talks about money are needed. No one is denying that. But, according to Cordes there’s “so little discussion about what people actually want to ‘DO’ in retirement.”

Cordes has talked with hundreds of people of retirement age who don’t have a career coach. Maybe they have a rabbi or a priest, but would they have the background to steer someone into a career path? “Financial advisors are who people should be talking to about having a second career.”

“But are advisors educated on the topic of encore careers?” I ask. “What if they gave their client bad advice?”

“I don’t think many advisors are prepared yet to give that type of advice to people,” says Cordes, “but they need to become prepared to help clients. Those that fail to prepare for those questions leave themselves open to losing clients to someone who does.”

It’s the new chapter of advising, as far as Cordes is concerned. “When I meet with an advisor I tell him, ‘Unless you believe that your clientele’s demographics are going to get younger than older, then this is something you need to look at and it’s something that will differentiate you.’ ”

See also:

How one former advisor is redefining retirement

DIAs: The perfect annuity for baby boomers

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