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You might say that Alice Liberson’s career is going to the dogs—again.
Liberson began her worklife as a veterinarian in Boston—a romantic career choice based mainly on her love for the two dogs her family owned when she was a child. But after five years of dealing with the harsh reality of ailing animals and emergency hours, Liberson felt burned out. She switched gears to become a veterinary pathologist, working with corporate clients on animal-related projects.
That led farther afield to other consulting jobs in strategic planning. She eventually went to work for a pharmaceutical firm, which she left after being part of a group that won a settlement in a sexual-harassment case. After that unhappy experience, she took refuge in her brother-in-law’s candy and bulk-foods distribution company while she pondered her next move.
The death of Liberson’s mother in 2000 was the catalyst that sent her back home to Michigan, and back to her roots in another way as well. After moving to Ann Arbor, she opened a pet boutique that sells supplies, premium foods and natural treats—an enterprise that lets her combine her business experience and her affinity for animals. “I love being my own boss,” says Liberson. “There is totally less stress.”
Liberson is one of millions of baby-boomers who are shifting to new careers as they begin a new stage of their lives. More than three-fourths of boomers say they expect to work in retirement, according to a study by AARP. About one-third of them will need the extra money to bolster their retirement savings, but most say they want to stay busy.
In a survey by RetirementJobs.com, 69% of those responding said flexibility is important in their ideal retirement job. “We found that job-seekers over 50 place a big premium on flexible work conditions, to the point where they will often accept reduced compensation in return for a suitable schedule,” says Tim Driver, chief executive of RetirementJobs.com.
About 30% of those surveyed also rated entrepreneurship as important. That’s where Liberson has found her niche. While her business got off the ground, she supported herself with income from her investments and the proceeds from her Newton, Mass., home, which she sold for $740,000—more than twice what she paid for it a decade earlier. She’s been content to grow her business, called Dogma Catmantoo, slowly. “I don’t have the energy or drive of a 25-year-old, and I wasn’t going to work all night,” she says.
Liberson employs four college students part-time at her shop, which she recently moved to larger quarters. She has started paying herself a small salary, and to bring in additional income she has updated her veterinary license and plans to start practicing homeopathic veterinary medicine. “Clearly I’m not going to be able to retire for a long time,” Liberson says cheerfully. But Dogma has become part of her social life, as well as her business, and she’s happy to make a “nice little living” doing something she loves.
Like Liberson, many midlife career-changers stick close to their field but switch to a job that’s more satisfying or less stressful. Others, like Wes Kimes, are looking for “work that has more significance.”
For 28 years, Kimes worked in sales for a number of companies throughout the Midwest. While still in his forties, he was promoted to vice-president of sales for family-owned Charles Industries, which sells boat batteries and voice- and data-transmission devices, in suburban Chicago. By the time he was approaching 50, he had reached many of the goals he’d set for himself and felt “a real desire to create a new line of work that I could do well into my sixties and seventies.”
On an airline flight back from Europe, he struck up a conversation with a fellow passenger who was an executive coach. The experience led Kimes to start working with a coach to figure out what he wanted to do in the next phase of his life—and eventually to become a coach himself. He realized that what he enjoyed most about his job was developing talent. “My responsibility was increasing revenue, but I achieved that by getting people to perform to the next level.”
He began researching outplacement and executive-development consulting firms—what he calls “pressure testing” when he advises clients these days. “You talk to people and envision yourself in their business,” explains Kimes. “You find out the pluses and minuses, and what kind of energy it takes. What would your life look like?”
Two years ago, Kimes, joined Right Management Consultants in Chicago as a vice-president and executive coach. In making the switch, he had to make “some short-term sacrifice in total compensation,” which he has since made up.
Kimes works with executives who are moving up and need to hone their leadership skills, as well as with those who are moving out of senior positions. “The work is business-oriented, competitive, fast-paced—the drugs from the business world that are still in my system,” says Kimes. “On the other hand, it creates lasting value for an individual. It’s work that has significance.”
One step at a time
As a child growing up in Little Rock, Ark., Kelly Yoakam had an exotic ambition—to become a harpist. As an adult, her work was much more prosaic—working as the office manager in her husband Bob’s pest-control business in Mason, Mich. But Kelly, who learned to play the piano as a child, never lost sight of her musical ambitions.
While home-schooling her two children, she started a small side business making lace crafts, and by 1990 had saved enough to buy her first harp. She began taking lessons and was asked to play at weddings and other events. By 1994, her performances and her crafts had brought in enough for her to invest $15,000 in a bigger harp. “My husband was super supportive,” says Kelly. “He loves the music, and the harp created less clutter than my sewing projects.”
Kelly tentatively began offering harp lessons and eventually ended up taking on a dozen students—“I never even thought I’d get as many as five.” At the same time, her performance calendar was filling up. Her husband asked if she wanted to leave the business and devote full time to her music, but she hesitated; the office work was easy and safe and provided a steady income. In 1999, a decade after acquiring her first harp, Kelly felt confident enough to make the break and focus on her musical career.
Now with her children in college, she has decided to study musicology and music theory at Michigan State University, and she hopes to get her master’s degree by next year. She earns as much as she made working for her husband and running her own crafts business, and she enjoys teaching and performing. “I’ve taken it one step at a time,” Kelly says. “If I had been shown the big picture, I never would have believed that I’d end up as a graduate student and a professional musician.”
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