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Image by Manuel Nageli on Unsplash

Marc Freedman’s book, Encore: Finding Work That Matters In The Second Half of Life targets baby boomers who want second careers that “matter,” i.e, that make a difference. These days, as people live longer, many want to redefine the term “retirement.” Many want to work and many find they need additional sources of income.

As I’ve written elsewhere, I’d like to do more than change the meaning of the term “retirement.” What needs to be retired is the whole concept of retirement.

Think about it. Where else do we encourage people to plan an ending without making plans for their next step? Don’t we encourage everyone to plan a career move in terms of moving to something, not from something?

When retirement gets associated with age, we get an official endorsement of ageism. You see someone who looks sixty-ish. You simply assume they’re “retired.” You assume they’re not doing work that comes with market levels of compensation and professional levels of demand. You assume they have no need to be anywhere at any time (except, of course, medical appointments, which are also associated with age). You assume they’re working for love. They want to leave a legacy.

The term “encore career” has become a popular phrase.

The term “encore career” seems to have been created by Marc Freedman. Freedman is now president and CEO of an organization called Encore.org. His LinkedIn profile describes him as a “leading expert” in the “longevity revolution.”

However, the term itself has grown beyond Freedman’s books and programs. For instance, a Forbes article dispenses advice on “Encore careers” without mentioning Mr. Freedman or his books. The term seems to have entered the language – a major accomplishment and a true innovation.

The concept of “encore career” initially seemed like an appealing metaphor the first time I heard it.

But let’s explore this metaphor further.  

Performers give encores for many reasons. They may seem to be tacked-on, spontaneous additions to the main show. The truth is, they’re usually planned ahead of time.

Some critics have begun questioning the value of encores. For instance, they’re very predictable: a band walks off stage for 20 seconds, then returns to play its most popular number.  Some modern bands simply refuse to do encores.

I love encores myself. But performers know they’ve got another “real” show tomorrow and the day after that. Do you really want to see your new career as an encore for the rest of your life…an extra, a crowd-pleaser, but with no real show tomorrow?

When we view later-life careers as encores, we’re telling prospective employers and clients, “Don’t take them seriously. They’re optional.” Oh, they’re older boomers, “they don’t care about rewards and promotions. They’re not forward-looking.”

When Joe Biden returned to politics to run for President, did anyone say he was enjoying an “encore career?”

Ultimately, the “encore career” metaphor promotes ageism.

Many people decide to change careers to get more control over their time, make a contribution that seems more meaningful, or experience less stress.  You can do this at any age. In fact, thousands of “younger” people have found fulfillment in the “laptop lifestyle.” Conversely, physical limitations can appear at any age.

Meanwhile, people who have accumulated wealth might choose to change careers without taking a big step back. Not everyone wants to work for peanuts so they can leave a legacy. Some want to keep working at full speed and donate to charities. Not everyone has the talents to be a volunteer.

Books and articles dedicated to “post-retirement careers” typically focus on the joy of starting a new life. We hear about professionals who put aside their degrees to become greeters at Wal-Mart.

I’d like to talk to those people one, three, or five years later. In my experience, professionals who take a step back to reduce stress often find they’re more stressed than before. They give up managerial responsibility, but now they experience the frustration of dealing with managers. They might have lower autonomy. And after a while, they miss the challenges.

Why diminish older career changers by labeling their new roles “encores” ?” Why not just talk about career transition that’s essentially ageless?