August 27, 2021
Motivation to live healthy comes in many forms. Some have an intrinsic impulse and simply enjoy the benefits. Others find inspiration in their loved ones and the quality of life they relish by being present for life's special moments. Then there are others who have adopted mutually supportive relationships in which friends or family join them in pursuit of healthy behaviors.
Common to all these examples is a purpose, a reason that sustains their habits. More than any diet or exercise regimen, it is this underlying drive, the context of our lives, that provides the pathway in our search for health and happiness.
As we age, the good news is that life provides a continuous wellspring of new incentives. Opportunities grounded in our social interests that leverage conditions that produce purpose. One such source is the encore career.
Investopedia defines an encore career as a second vocation beginning in the latter half of one's life pursued as much for its public or social purpose and a sense of fulfillment as for financial reasons. Researchers say encore careers tend to be clustered in five areas: health care, the environment, education, government and the nonprofit sector.
The term encore career was popularized by Marc Freedman, author of "Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life." Freedman founded Encore.org and is considered a leading expert on longevity.
The findings of a recent American Perspectives Survey, conducted by the American Enterprise Institute, reinforces the early work of Freedman. It found that 20% of retired Americans were not fully retired, but had extended their careers by working in the gig economy. AEI reports that FlexJobs and Thumbtack target older retirees by providing opportunities to work as tutors, rental hosts, pet-sitters and rideshare drivers.
Consistent with prior research, and representative of the link with healthy behavior, the AEI report showed recent retirees are being drawn back to work by non-financial incentives. A whopping 96% of workers over age 65 said "an enjoyable job is essential or important to living a fulfilling life." Another 54% of this group indicated that their jobs are part of their identities. These findings prompted researchers to conclude that the gig economy may be so enticing because it allows retirees to earn part-time wages and reap social and psychological benefits without the limitations of a full-time job.
When considering demographic and economic trends, the prospects are strong for the growth of encore careers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, various factors are leading people to work later in life.
"They are healthier and have a longer life expectancy than previous generations," the Bureau notes. "They are better educated, which increases their likelihood of staying in the labor force. And changes to Social Security benefits and employee retirement plans, along with the need to save more for retirement, create incentives to keep working."
By 2024, the Bureau projects that the labor force will include about 41 million people ages 55 and older, with the 65-plus age group projected to have the fastest annual rates of labor force growth.
So, the evidence is clear that people are working longer and for more that just the money, but what does this all mean for our health? What's the connection between an encore career, the fulfillment it provides, and our motivation to live healthy? Here's the science.
A 2019 study published by JAMA Network Open found that adults over age 50 who scored the highest on a scale measuring "life purpose" were less likely to die from heart, circulatory or blood conditions compared to those who scored lower during the four-year study period.
While researchers acknowledged the limitations of the study, they theorized that purpose can make people more likely to protect their health by adopting better diet, sleep and exercise habits. They also suggest that people with a higher sense of purpose are less bothered by various stressors and recover more quickly when stressed.
The Pathways to Encore Purpose study, led by Stanford University in collaboration with Freedman's Encore.org, found that most older adults have high levels of "prosocial values," like caring for people or the environment. Almost one-third pursue goals that provide individual purpose and benefit a greater good.
The researchers deemed their findings "good news for older adults and for the organizations that might recruit them into paid and unpaid roles." They pointed to evidence indicating that purpose, the desire to nurture younger generations and volunteering have a positive impacts on the mental and physical health of older adults.
So, what might prompt you to consider an encore career and reap the physical and mental health benefits?
The employee Benefit Research Institute examined this question. Among the top responses were many that bridged the financial and personal dimensions of life. Over 80% said they work to fund discretionary expenses, like dinner out, or new sports equipment. There also were over 80% of respondents who cited personal rewards — a sense of meaning and purpose — as their rationale. Such satisfaction also was linked to the ability to combat post-retirement depression.
Lower rated, but still significant, 64% said they work to fund essential expenses. For some, those expenses were unexpected. For others, they were the result of insufficient retirement planning. Additionally, 63% said they work to socialize and get a sense of belonging.
To determine if an encore career fits into your retirement plans, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania suggests that you start with a realistic assessment of the aspects of your job that you find enjoyable and what you'll lose by retiring. Also, consider how you plan to spend the time you previously spent at your job. Think about the hobbies and volunteer opportunities that appeal to you.
Finally, the experts suggest that a phased retirement, in which you work part-time, is a good way to maintain some income while you scale back. This model allows you to stay socially engaged and keeps your mind sharp while you explore other opportunities.
Worker shortages, COVID-prompted remote working, a continuing need for volunteers at nonprofits, and a host of new flexible work structures make this a great time to consider an encore career — and the opportunity to enhance your health and well-being.
Chances are, you may already be one of the many 50-plus workers who have extended their careers. If not, it's certainly worth a look as the market is hot for another run, and you may literally feel better by doing so.
Louis Bezich, senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Cooper University Health Care, is author of "Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50." Read more from Louis on his website.