Helen Dennis

Helen Dennis

An encore career—one initiated later in life—is usually not just about the money. Instead, this growing movement combines purpose, passion, and a paycheck in service to the greater good. By marrying the best of volunteering, work, and entrepreneurship, the encore career is rooted in American tradition—our history and values.

Volunteerism and vocation

Volunteers built this country and shaped American society. During colonial times, men pooled their efforts to clear land and raise barns; women helped one another with annual house cleaning. Volunteers established churches, donating land, materials, and money so their communities could have their own places to worship. In the 1600s, colonists in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York formed citizen fire brigades. Three and half centuries later, the United States is known as a society of volunteers. Continuous with the tradition of volunteerism is the desire for vocation—for work that has personal meaning and social resonance.

Currently, 64.5 million Americans (more than a quarter of the U.S. population) are volunteers. As of 2010, they were estimated to be providing about 8 billion hours of service a year, valued at $173 billion.

Just as volunteerism is central to American values, so is work. The American work ethic arose from the Puritan belief that hard work is an honor to God leading to a prosperous reward. According to the National Bureau of Economic ResearchAmericans work more than Europeans do. For better or worse, we take less vacation, work longer days, and retire later in life.

Entrepreneurship is another American ideal. For entrepreneurship to thrive, certain social conditions must exist: political stability and rule of law, absence of bureaucratic and regulatory barriers to incorporation, and incentives for people to invest their own capital in new businesses1.  We have them all, and older adults know it. The Kaufman Foundation reports that Americans between the ages of 55 and 64 had a higher rate of entrepreneurial activity than those between the ages of 20 and 34.

Putting the pieces together

Decades ago, the nonprofit world attempted to launch initiatives somewhat similar to the current encore movement.

In 1976, the Volunteer Center of Los Angeles launched the nonprofit organization Second Careers. Its purpose was to steer business retirees into important and fulfilling volunteer jobs among community service agencies in Los Angeles. This project’s social purpose was evident; the pay was not.

In 1981, the Los Angeles Council on Careers for Older Americans morphed into the nonprofit organization Career Encores. Its purpose was to help older adults find jobs, through an array of employment services. Work for pay was present; social purpose was not.

Both of these organizations focused on encore work life but did so piecemeal, and neither exists today.

Not until the Baby Boom generation neared retirement did the concept of meaningful, entrepreneurial paid work with a social purpose ignite into a movement. Baby Boomers looked at the world of work and asked the same question raised by women in Betty Friedan’s 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique: “Is this all?”

The encore movement is a response to that question. This movement is a timely transformation of expectations as we age—an expression of Americans’ passion to solve social problems and of our willingness to reach for the brass ring, with all of the risks and rewards that attend the gesture.

The marriage of volunteering, work, and social entrepreneurship is a natural outgrowth of the American tradition of volunteerism and our work ethic. The time is right for encore careers. And so a new question arises: “What are our professional and personal roles in making this innovative movement a new root of American culture and values?”


Helen Dennis
Specialist in Aging, Employment and the New Retirement
Email: helendenn@aol.com