Now What Should I Do? — The Boomer’s Dilemma

labor participation rate

This is the second in a series of articles about my new book Finding the Sweet Spot. The book is available from most booksellers or online from the sites listed in the right sidebar. A synopsis of the book is here. A complete set of reviews of the book (thank you, reviewers!) can be found on Beth Patterson’s site here.

My book has three intended audiences:

  • The huge global cohort of young people (16-to-early twenties) who are not yet employed, struggling unsuccessfully to get into the labor force, or about to enter it. This is the largest cohort in the history of our planet, even bigger than their boomer parents.
  • The “boomers” (50-65) who will have to, or want to, find “second careers”, hopefully doing work they enjoy and find meaningful.
  • Squeezed in between them, the half of all surveyed “working-age” (25-54) people who say they find their work mind-numbing, humiliating, mismatched to their skills, or otherwise dissatisfying.

I want to write about the first and third groups in future articles, but this one is about the second group, the boomers who, by choice or necessity, simply are not retiring from the work force (as the two red circles at right on the chart above attest), even though many are being pushed out of their jobs to make room for younger and/or cheaper replacements. Many of these people must, or wish to, find second careers.

Many of them will try, mostly unsuccessfully, to make a living doing what they did as employees, going it alone as “consultants”. While those age 55+ make up 25% of the workforce, they make up 40% of the self-employed. And unlike younger workers, only a minority of this age group has a high school diploma. For many of them, they only know how to do one job, and wouldnít know how to begin starting a business to do anything else. Statistically, the vast majority of them will earn much less than they did as employees, despite working long hours trying to find customers who will value their considerable experience. Many will put a brave face on a very stressful and unprofitable period of self-employment, because they can’t imagine it being easier to do anything else.

Workers aged 55-64 (especially women) are the fastest-growing segment of the labor force. Many women in this age bracket are re-entering the labor force after a protracted period outside it, or even entering it for the first time, and finding the prospect, and the experience, demoralizing and terrifying.

Increasingly, lower- and middle-income Americans have no option of retiring — their savings are utterly insufficient to support them for the thirty or forty years after age 55 that most can expect to live. We hear about the boomers who have benefited from the decades-long boom in the housing and stock markets (that ended abruptly this year) and can afford to retire and live a long life of leisure, but this is a small proportion of the boomer generation, and it has recently become much smaller. And even for this wealthy minority, the prospect of three or four decades out of the workforce is either fearsome or unimaginably boring — after being burned out from decades in exhausting executive jobs, they are likely looking at second careers that will allow them to give something back, and to do something they love that capitalizes on the immense skills they have acquired over their first careers.

These second-career seekers need the skills to create new enterprises, not sole proprietorships that require them to compete with or outsource the work of their former employer. For people who have a lifetime of knowledge that is greatly needed in the challenging 21st century workplace, work as a Wal-Mart greeter is a colossal waste of talent and wisdom. We have to help them do better.

It is probably hard to imagine the abject terror that making a living for themselves instills in boomers who have absolutely no experience doing so. Chances are, most of the entrepreneurs they do know went at it the wrong way and failed, perhaps miserably and expensively, so they have most of the same ten ingrained fears of entrepreneurship that the young people I speak to in business schools express: Not having the skills, self-confidence, ideas, money or time; not being able to handle the stress, the failure or the loneliness; not knowing the “process”; and the fear that “the deck’s stacked against entrepreneurs in favour of big business”.

In my book I explain how these ten fears are unwarranted, and how the most successful entrepreneurs have discovered ways to make a living for yourself that is not stressful, risky, exhausting or expensive.

The process starts with self-discovery: knowing what you’re really good at (your Gifts), what your really love doing (your Passions), and what is needed in the world that you really care about (your Purpose), and finding the “sweet spot” where these three intersect. You might imagine that a worker in his or her fifties would have a pretty good idea what his or her Gifts and Passions are, but you’d be wrong. Most of us did what we were trained to do, and worked at it so hard and so long that we had no chance to even contemplate whether it was really what we were “meant to do.”

So, much of Finding the Sweet Spot is exercises that help those with entrepreneurial aspirations try to discover what that “sweet spot” is for them. This is a challenging task (and it changes throughout our lifetime) but it can also be very enjoyable.

I’m hoping that the book is successful enough that there will be ‘circles’ of those seeking their “sweet spot” who will get together, not only to help each other explore and imagine the work they were really meant to do, but also to discover partners, people who share their Purpose and whose Gifts and Passions complement their own. Because the biggest mistake that entrepreneurs make, especially those looking for second careers, is to try to do everything themselves, alone. No one has all the skills needed for a successful entrepreneurial venture, and sharing the workload, the challenges and learning of a new enterprise converts the experience from a stressful and lonely one to a joyful, social one — and greatly increases the likelihood of success.

If I can get the future entrepreneurs of the world — people whose skills, ideas and efforts are so critical to the economy of the future — to just take these two first steps — to start with a discovery of the work they’re really meant to do, and to do so with partners with complementary Gifts and Passions, I’ll have succeeded in my book’s purpose. Because with this foundation, they’ll be on their way to creating Natural Enterprises, and being a part of a bold new Natural Economy — one that is purposeful, responsible, sustainable, and even fun. The events of the past few months have shown clearly that the time for that newNatural Economy is now.

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