The Challenges and Rewards of Starting Over
by Doug Carpenter
Legendary baseball catcher and linguistic free spirit Yogi Berra was always good for a pithy quote. On the matter of staying in the game… be it baseball or life… his philosophy was about as subtle as a line drive to center field. “It ain’t over,” he said, “til it’s over.” Of course, had he been talking about the working lives of the generation of Americans now age 50 and older, he probably would’ve felt compelled to add “and maybe not even then.”
Thanks to economic and political conditions that change faster than you can say “gold watch,” today’s world is clearly different from the one most of our parents and grandparents worked hard in and then retired from. Arriving like clockwork on a preplanned schedule, retirement was as much a birthright as it was an eagerly-anticipated goal. That, unfortunately, was then. For a growing number of us, the new “now” is a whole different ballgame.
Call It Social Insecurity.
When Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act of 1935 into law, it set the age for retirement at 65. Of course, at the time, the average American life expectancy was 63.5 years, leaving a comfortably narrow margin of financial responsibility for the newly-minted national pension system. In stark contrast, today’s dramatically larger over-65 population stands to live to a more-active-than-ever 76 or even older. And longer life expectancies bring with them a commensurate need for extended income to cover the cost of living those extra years. Do the math and you see the beginning of the problem.
Approximately half of all Americans work at jobs today that offer no pension benefits. And for those lucky enough to have a retirement plan, stock market downturns have steadily decreased the value of their pension accounts… assuming the stunning wave of Enron- and Worldcom-style corporate malfeasance didn’t already wipe them out altogether.
As many as eight out of ten stock owners between ages 50 and 70 have seen their individual stocks, mutual funds or other investment accounts such as 401(k)s drop in value. As a result, of those still working, one in five has had to put off retiring because of their losses and many who had already done so have been forced to go back to work. And all this has already transpired before the first Baby Boomer turns 65 six years from now.
Throw in the fact that Western New York’s aging population must contend with these forces – in and of themselves capable of playing havoc with anyone’s hopes for a comfortable, secure future – while carrying the added burden of the area’s longterm economic adversity and you have the recipe for understandable uncertainty.
Tough Questions. Tougher Answers.
All these factors set the stage for the challenges now being faced by an increasing number of people – both of retirement age as well as those quickly approaching it – who, either by choice or necessity, find themselves back at “square one” in their working lives. Lots of different kinds of people all searching for answers to the same inescapable questions: What do I do now? And who can I call for help?
The people at this crossroad arrive there with both common concerns and unique needs. One group, of course, are workforce veterans whose careers have gotten off track for any of a variety of reasons. Their employer may have been bought out, left town or simply closed down. Their job may have been “outsourced” or, even more frustratingly, upgraded technologically to a level for which they’re not adequately trained. Or perhaps they just “ran out of steam,” finding that they lack not the skill but the will to keep doing what they do, hungering instead for a new challenge.
Another life experience that brings a considerable number of mature Western New Yorkers face-to-face with the challenge of starting over is being what is widely described as a “displaced homemaker.” This is someone, most often a woman, who worked in the home for a substantial number of years providing unpaid household services for family members. She may, in fact, have never worked anywhere else, and as a result has considerable difficulty finding a job in the public workplace. Not infrequently, the need that puts them on that new and unfamiliar track is precipitated by the disability or death of a spouse.
Regardless of the circumstances that led to their decision to begin again, to have any chance of making a go of the new life they seek, they need all the encouragement and direction they can get. Fortunately, in Western New York, those commodities are available from a number of excellent sources, including two organizations which have for decades been instrumental in providing key resources to those starting over professionally.
Reality Checks Don’t Bounce.
SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives, is a non-profit organization that offers small business counseling and training under a grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration. As successful, retired businesspeople repurposing their professional experience to facilitate new business start-ups, SCORE volunteers are themselves excellent examples of starting over at its productive best.
SCORE Buffalo-Niagara was one of the organization’s charter chapters when it was founded 40 years ago. Today, as part of its 800-office network linking every state in the nation, the local organization offers access to the services of nearly 50 counselors at 12 satellite locations, including Amherst, Williamsville, East Aurora, Kenmore, Lockport, Niagara Falls, North Tonawanda, Orchard Park, Orleans, Albion, West Seneca and Hamburg.
According to Jack Halloran, Chair of SCORE Buffalo-Niagara, as the area’s fiscal vitality has declined, his organization has seen a steady rise in the need for the expertise SCORE counselors offer. And in a similar reflection of the impact these iffy economic times are having on older workers, he adds that a good 25% of the aspiring entrepreneurs his people work with are in the 50+ category.
The urge to reach for the brass ring by launching an independent business is felt by workers of all ages, says Halloran, who at 70 is now five years into his retirement from a more than 40-year engineering career as with Cooper Turbocompressor. Recognizing that there will always be both people whose dreams are realistic and those whose dreams are just that, he notes that a key part of SCORE’s job is to help them realistically see which kind theirs are. Starting a business is, after all, a big financial commitment. And reality checks are the only kind that don’t bounce.
For those with viable visions, SCORE Buffalo-Niagara provides both confidential one-on-one consultations and group workshops, covering topics ranging from writing a sound business plan to building a strong financial base to making an impact through marketing. SCORE’s commitment, he says, is to stick with them as long as necessary to give them the best possible shot at making their ideas work.
Redefining Your Life.
Often, however, people find themselves starting over with no idea of what to do or even what they’re capable of doing. That’s the all-too-common plight of many displaced homemakers, for whom an unplanned entry into the proverbial “rat race” can catch them totally unprepared. In her 20 years as Executive Director of Western New York’s Everywoman Opportunity Center, Myrna Young has seen it time and again.
Because so many displaced homemakers invariably say “I never worked” rather than “I didn’t work outside the home,” starting over again, says Young, starts with redefining “who you are and how you live your life. It’s a difficult hurdle to overcome.”
Through its Displaced Homemaker Program – the largest in the United States – Everywoman helps women like these develop the new sense of self they need to enter, re-enter or move forward in the working world. To accomplish this, the agency maintains offices in downtown Buffalo with satellite locations on Buffalo's West Side and in Tonawanda, Niagara Falls, Olean and Dunkirk, where they assist with career decisions, teach effective job search techniques and help the technophobic become more computer savvy.
Founded in 1977, the Center has steadily expanded its services to keep pace with the needs of the growing population for whom opportunity grows increasingly less available. “The poorest people in our society,” Young points out, “are older women and young women with children under six. Economically speaking,” she adds, “women are still behind.” She does, however, see some potentially positive trends in the marketplace that may ultimately favor the traditionally more disadvantaged older worker.
What Goes Around Comes Around.
“Things are beginning to change,” she observes. As a result of the overall aging of the American population – a phenomenon occurring to an even greater degree locally, there is a decreasing number of appropriately skilled younger workers available to businesses. This is beginning to put companies in the unfamiliar but nevertheless necessary position of having to figure out how to retain or even rehire experienced workers… i.e. retirees. “These are people they wouldn’t have given a second glance ten years ago. At this rate,” she adds with satisfaction, “they may well be the ‘hot babes and guys’ on the job scene in another five years.”
But if there’s anything that makes the road back to employability more difficult, Halloran and Young agree that advancing technology is a main culprit. “You blink and the technology of the workplace has changed,” says Young, creating a significant stumbling block for the approximately 25% of both Everywoman’s and SCORE’s clients who are over 50. “In the past, someone could take two or three years off to raise a family or do a variety of other things and return to their careers fairly close to where they left off.”
That, she says, is a thing of the past. And if that problem is intimidating to mid-career employees out of the workforce for just a few years, imagine its impact on those who’ve been out of the loop for decades and even permanently. That’s one of the reasons Everywoman makes “demystification” such a high priority, offering classes in things like basic computer use, utilizing libraries for research and even just navigating city streets. All are routine activities most of us take for granted. But they can be real deal-breakers to someone struggling to get up to speed after being out of the working game.
Never Say Never.
For both SCORE Buffalo-Niagara and Everywoman, fighting the good fight on behalf of people trying to weather an economy that has seen more than its share of storms is a battle of numbers. But far beyond unemployment statistics, interest rates and economic indicators, you can see that the help they provide counts because you can count the people they’ve helped.
Nationwide, SCORE counselors contribute nearly 1.5 million volunteer hours annually, providing services that benefited more than 2,700 Western New York area clients this past year alone. Everywoman’s numbers are equally impressive, helping place nearly 12,000 individuals in jobs over the last 17 years. But if you were to ask any of those people what they think the most important number is, it would probably be “one.”
The one chance they needed to survive, despite odds that looked overwhelming. The chance that they received because these organizations were there to help. And the story of one woman’s success that illustrates how you should never say never.
It Could Be Anyone’s Story.
She came to Everywoman a divorced mother in her 40s with three children and no experience working anywhere but in her home, which now was also gone. She had moved from comfortably well-off to wondering how she was going to support herself and her family fast enough to leave her more frightened than frustrated. She was the classic displaced homemaker.
The counselors at Everywoman did what they do best. They helped her take stock, and determined… despite her skepticism… that her considerable life experience preparing large dinners and planning social events was, in fact, enough to earn her admittance to the Culinary Institute of America. This training, in turn, led her to establish a successful catering business.
That, of course, could very well have been the end of this success story. But as in every life, there are always unexpected developments. In this case, it was a second new beginning, which came when that same woman… now in her 50s… realized that she needed more reward and fulfillment than her catering enterprise could give her. Yet, like before, she still harbored doubts about whether she was up to the challenge of going after the education she’d need to take the next career step.
Fortunately, Everywoman was there this time, too, providing testing that showed her she was more than intellectually equipped for college… even in her 50s. Empowered and energized, she went on to get not only her Bachelor’s degree but a Master’s, as well, and today enjoys a thriving, and well-paying, Public Relations and Marketing career in Washington, D.C.
At a time when the economic uncertainties around us raise valid questions about just how secure any of us really would be should adversity touch our lives, success stories like this serve to remind us that Yogi Berra did, in fact, have a point. It isn’t over til it’s over. And exactly when that is is completely up to you.
© 2005 Doug Carpenter
More information is available from:
Everywoman Opportunity Center