THEY WERE THE CHILDREN OF THE ORGANIZATION MEN those gray-flannel-clad climbers whose zeal for corporate life remains a defining image of the 1950s . But by the time the first baby boomers began entering the work force in the late 1960s, times were changing. College degrees had become more prevalent. Women were seeking out careers that were once off-limits.
Industrial jobs were giving way to even more office work. And America’s postwar fascination with materialism—look, there’s another new car in the driveway of another newly built suburban home! —was on the wane. When it came to work, baby boomers wanted something more than steady paychecks, and predictable promotions and the ultimate gold watch. Many wanted their work to be, above all, meaningful. That quest continues for them today. Boomers are a wide demographic: the oldest, at 60, are nearing the age when their parents probably thought about retiring, while the youngest, at 42, are just hitting the sweet spot of their careers. Some are fantastically wealthy; some struggle in poverty. But most have approached their working lives with a self-determination unlike any previous generation—and for many, that means starting a whole new career in mid-life. “There are tens of millions of people involved here, [asking, “What am I going to do with the rest of my life?’” says Richard Fein, author of “The Baby Boomer’s Guide to the New Workplace.” Every day, a few more boomers blast those “new contact info” e-mails out as they pursue new professional adventures. Some are trading high-paying jobs to move into non-profits or government positions. Some are starting businesses—or trying to parlay an individual passion (for quilting, say) into a way to make a living. Not all these moves are voluntary: for many people nowadays, the journey toward a new career begins with the pain of a pink slip. And not everyone will find what they’re seeking. Harvard political scientist Russell Muirhead, author of “Just Work,” says the notion that one’s occupation should deliver something more meaningful than a paycheck began with the 19th— century Romantics, but it’s boomers who’ve truly embraced this ideal. They expect in some sense that their careers will help them realize their authentic self,” he says. Traditionally, making a career change required finding another job. But for the generation that counts iconic company founders like Bill Gates and Michael Dell among its members, there’s often a smarter route: creating a job of your own by starting a new business. David Thompson got a taste of start-up life when he was chief marketing officer at WebEx, a hot web-conferencing firm. In 2000, WebEx was slated to go public—potentially making Thompson and his colleagues rich— but as the tech market softened, the IPO was delayed. “I had this huge emotional reaction,” says Thompson, now 44. Reappraising his lifestyle, he saw a guy who ate horribly, slept little and rarely exercised. So he took a nine-month sabbatical, doing yoga and losing 40 pounds . Soon afterward he launched his own firm, Genius.com, Inc., which develops software to support salespeople. As his own boss, he often works from home and schedules time for quiet reflection. “Everybody is so damn busy, no one thinks about what they really want,” he says. Now, after years of craziness, he says, “my life finally has some balance.” That serenity is hardly the norm among folks who Inc. themselves. Many say their transition from having a well-defined job to being master of everything (from fixing the copy machine to balancing the books) adds to their stress, at least initially. Seven months ago, when Larry Spear, the 45-year-old vice president of sales and marketing for a Florida utility, lefi to create his own telecom start-up, he knew he’d miss his prestigious title and his six-figure salary. But at BFE Telecom (it stands for Black Financial l Empowerment), he’s launching projects like The Black 411™, which lets callers throughout the United States dial a special number to locate black-owned businesses they can patronize. “I feel alive—I feel like what I’m doing matters,” he says. “I’d like my kids to think, “Hey, my dad did something more than make money.He did something very cool’.” With life expectancies rising and traditional pension plans evaporating, these folks may need to keep their new careers going for years to come. Most predict baby boomers will work longer than their parents, and not just for financial necessity, but also to prevent boredom. According to a report called “The Future of Retirement” by the HSBC bank, “later life is increasingly seen as a time of opportunity and re-invention, rather than of rest and relaxation.” The AARP says close to 70 percent of Americans plan to work at least part time during their “retirement” years—for money as well as a sense of purpose. Among human resource pros, there are countless task forces studying ways that companies can better accommodate seniors. The AARP even gives annual awards to the Best Employers for Workers Over 50; last year’s winners included Volkswagen, Michelin and Whirlpool.With KAREN SPRINGEN in Chicago, JOAN RAYMOND in Cleveland and JAMIE REND in San Diego SOURCE: NEWSWEEK Magazine June 19, 2006. Volume CXLVII, No. 25