Colleges Help Older Workers Plot Encore Careers

From a Wall Street Journal story by Anne Tergesen headlined “For $60,000, These Colleges Help Older Workers Plot Encore Careers”:

Colleges are creating new programs for older adults who are contemplating what to do next as they near the end of their careers.

The programs are designed for midlife professionals who typically have at least two decades of experience. About eight exist so far, many at elite institutions such as Harvard University and Stanford University, with more schools developing their own offerings. One-year programs often range from $50,000 to $60,000 or more, depending on the institution, with discounts available to some.

Participants—generally in their 50s and 60s—typically audit courses, interact with professors and attend dinners and campus events. They take classes that encourage introspection and the exchange of ideas about how to chart a new course, whether it is a new job, nonprofit work or some other interest. Many make new friends, something that is not always easy in midlife.

“It’s been a continuing source of friendship,” said Anne Welsh McNulty, 69, who graduated from Harvard’s program in 2015 and Stanford’s in 2018. A former Goldman Sachs executive who now runs a family foundation, she said the programs were an opportunity “to go back to college but without the stress.”

Colleges are catering to an aging population as overall enrollment has declined. There are also more people working longer. Among workers ages 65 to 74, more than a quarter are in the civilian labor force, up from 20% in 2001. The figure is projected to rise to 31% in 2031, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Many of those enrolling have spent the past two or three decades establishing careers, raising children and having little time to themselves. The programs are designed to meet this new moment of change, where they now have more free time but may lack direction on how to be as fulfilled in this new chapter.

“It’s not just taking a class,” said Bonnie Zavon, project director for Nexel Collaborative, a nonprofit alliance of schools helping to develop midlife transition programs. “It’s thinking about your life.”

Harvard enrolled its first group in 2009, and schools including the University of Notre Dame and the University of Texas at Austin have since followed. A few more, including the University of Oxford, are slated to start programs this year or next, according to Nexel.

The programs typically admit between 15 and 50 participants.

A search for identity and impact

Many baby boomers are choosing to reinvent themselves rather than retire to a life of leisure, said Seth Green, a dean at the University of Chicago, which plans to launch a program for seasoned executives in September.

Connie Lindsey, 65, retired in 2021 as head of corporate social responsibility and global diversity, equity and inclusion at Northern Trust Corp. She has since applied to the University of Chicago’s forthcoming program, called the Leadership & Society Initiative. Ms. Lindsey serves on boards of nonprofits, including the American Cancer Society.

She says she wants to spend time considering how she can have a greater impact on causes she cares about, including addressing inequities in healthcare.

“In this season of my life, I want to continue to live knowing that I have made a difference,” said Ms. Lindsey.

Midlife programs seek to re-create the structure, sense of identity and camaraderie many jobs provide. They also immerse older students in an environment among undergraduates, a population also transitioning to a new life stage.

“If you go to a party and people ask what you’re doing, instead of hemming and hawing, you can say ‘I’m a fellow at Harvard or Notre Dame,’” said Marc Freedman, founder of CoGenerate, a nonprofit working to bridge generational divides.

Donations, expertise and advice

Universities say the programs benefit campuses, too, beyond just more tuition money.

Older adults often bring real-world perspectives to classroom discussions. Some provide free consulting to faculty, students and staff wanting to commercialize products or start nonprofits or university programs.

Some graduates make big donations. Others serve as mentors for participants who join the program after them.

Some programs are available at a fraction of the cost of the elite programs, many of which have discounts available. The University of Colorado Denver charges $3,200 for Change Makers, a one-semester program it launched in January that features twice-weekly sessions, with lectures on topics including ageism and entrepreneurship. It also offers a course to help participants chart next steps and help finding volunteer work.

Each program has a different focus. Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute offers a memoir-writing class, and Harvard focuses on addressing social issues.

While at Harvard, Ms. McNulty designed the Anne Welsh McNulty Institute for Women’s Leadership, founded in 2017 at her alma mater, Villanova University.

The love of learning

Tim Weber, a 56-year-old Notre Dame alumnus, joined Notre Dame’s Inspired Leadership Initiative this fall after retiring in May as a rear admiral from the U.S. Navy.

After a three-decade career, “it was time to step away and explore new options,” said Mr. Weber, who oversaw 10 hospitals and global medical research labs.

Participants take a literature course with a heavy dose of classics, are assigned faculty advisers, and have access to spiritual directors from a variety of faiths, said director Thomas Schreier.

Mr. Weber has taken classes in international development and global health that have inspired him to consider new options, such as working for a nonprofit abroad. He has also read authors from Sophocles to Desmond Tutu and discussed the values that help guide life decisions.

“This is really about learning for the love of learning,” said Mr. Weber. (Many of the programs don’t confer degrees, and professors sometimes exempt participants from grades.)

The University of Chicago’s program plans to pair up to 20 fellows with executive coaches and mentors. Mr. Green said fellows can work with university centers that are dedicated to causes including violence prevention and educational equity.

The group also will take a class on how to live a meaningful life, and each student will present a “purpose plan” for their future.

Anne Tergesen is a reporter covering retirement in The Wall Street Journal’s Life & Work and personal finance departments.

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