Baby Boomers Unretire to New Careers

Forget Florida. The boomers’ “second life” includes meaning—and work

My whole life, I’ve wanted to retire. To sit on a beach in some unpronounceable locale, sipping some indescribable cocktail and worrying not a whit about anything but the occasional tsunami warning. Isn’t that the goal? (No offense to present and prospective employers.)

And then I talked to Chris Farrell, the St. Paul–based personal-finance guru for public radio’s Marketplace Money. Guess who’s not invited to the farewell luau? “It’s so exciting to have that first cocktail at 4 p.m.,” he said of retirees in general (he’s still punching the clock), harpooning my fantasy with the same sanguine tone he’d deploy to discourage buying a hot tub with student loans. “And then you realize that no one cares if you drink at noon.” In fact, no one cares what you do. Which suddenly doesn’t sound very satisfying. So what’s a cold, tired Minnesotan to do?

Unretire. Like Brett Favre, without so much, um, Favre. Easy for Farrell to say: Gliding into his sixth decade in coiffed white hair and sweater vests, he’s not exactly digging ditches. And in his new book, Unretirement: How Baby Boomers are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community, and The Good Life, he notes that many of the quarter-million Americans turning 65 every month now are still retiring. But many won’t stay that way. “What most people today really want is a long vacation,” he told me. Not a permanent one. 

The Greatest Generation was lured to Florida with their battle scars and gold watches for a few final years of peace and margaritas, littering the beaches like so much salt on the rim. Boomers aren’t biting. They’re living longer, staying healthier, and looking for just as much meaning later in life as they did in their work. Which often means, well, working.

“This isn’t about working for The Man,” Farrell clarifies. He’s found ostensible retirees working contract jobs, consulting, driving personal taxis a few days a week, opening coffee shops—encore careers, he calls them. These are gigs found by networking, not sending video resumés. So it’s not surprising that in a recent AARP study, three out of four boomers said they wanted to “age in place”—where their networks are—a trend that’s already changing Minnesota. Migration to Arizona has flat-lined since 2005; moves to Florida have dropped by half. 

I don’t know. Bocce under the palms still sounds pretty good. But Farrell believes the best is yet to come. He cites Matisse, the French painter (who by my lights never worked a day in his life, but whatever). After confinement to a wheelchair in 1941, he began what he called “une seconde vie,” his 13-year second life making the colorful cutouts that became his most beloved creations. “I have needed all that time,” Matisse once said of his first life, “to reach the stage where I can say what I want to say.” If that’s true, then I could be persuaded to unretire. Because the only thing more powerful than the fantasy of retirement is the fear of wasted potential. The Great American Novel won’t write itself. I can sleep when I’m dead.