HOW A U OF M PROFESSOR IS HELPING BABY BOOMERS REIMAGINE THEIR LIVES
Nancy Kelly spent 25 years working in employment law and raising four children in St. Paul. With her kids now grown, she started contemplating what might come next. Then someone sent her an article from Forbes magazine about the University of Minnesota Advanced Careers (UMAC) initiative, and “it immediately struck a chord with me,” she says. “I wasn’t getting anywhere on my own, so I thought a program like this would help me determine my next step.” And it did.
Last fall, Kelly—along with nine other Baby Boomers—made up the first cohort for UMAC, a program geared toward late-career professionals seeking to transition to new and meaningful opportunities.
The idea of McKnight Endowed Presidential Chair in Sociology Phyllis Moen, UMAC is designed as something of a “gap year” for a large group of Americans now entering a new life stage. Thanks to medical advances and increased longevity, Moen says, a growing number of people between the ages of 50 and 79 are finding themselves at loose ends. They’re weary of their careers, yet they still long to contribute.
Moen has dubbed this stage of life the “encore stage,” and has even written a book describing it: Encore Adulthood: Boomers on the Edge of Risk, Renewal, and Purpose (Oxford University Press, 2016). “These people want to do something purposeful, meaningful, but they no longer want to work 50 or 60 hours a week and kill themselves over their jobs,” she says. “And they want more flexibility.”
REWRITING THE SCRIPT
As they contemplate what that next phase might look like, these adults often encounter a mindset that’s stuck in the last century: exit the workforce once and for all, then embark on a life of leisure. Moen points out that many aren’t ready to be sidelined but haven’t had much help figuring out how to reinvent themselves. Until now.
Moen was inspired by a similar program at Stanford University, which she learned about during a year spent at that school’s Center for Advanced Study. Although the Stanford program is designed exclusively for top executives, she recognized it was doing something she had long contemplated: helping people imagine what’s next in their lives.
She and her two associates—executive director Kate Schaefers and coordinator Jane Peterson—decided to launch the U’s program quickly last fall, having concluded that a pilot program would be more informative than an additional year of planning. “We were sort of making it up as we went along,” Moen says.
For the first year, programming consisted of a mixture of weekly readings and discussions, faculty dialogues, thought-leader presentations, career coaching, and sitting alongside undergraduates in a class about the future of work and life. Participants—called fellows—also were expected to complete a community engagement project with a local nonprofit agency.
Kelly chose to help the Minnesota History Center improve the accessibility of Grainland, an experiential exhibit for third through fifth graders. Since Grainland was a very physical exhibit, her charge was to make it more engaging for children who weren’t capable of extensive movement. To do so, Kelly drew on her experience as a longtime Minneapolis Institute of Art volunteer who helped the museum improve its services for people with special needs.
Among the first UMAC cohort were:
• A psychologist who worked as a hospital crisis worker, school psychologist, and halfway house program manager
• An executive in the architectural and conservation glass industry
• A marketing strategist who’s worked with start-up companies
• Two attorneys—one who practiced family law and employment law; another who worked with national retail companies
• A communication and development manager for a Mandarin immersion charter school
• A consultant who specializes in new employee leadership training
• A cartographer/geographer who co-authored an award-winning international atlas of women in the world
She also took full advantage of being on campus, finding particular inspiration in a human rights symposium on transitional justice in Guatemala and El Salvador. “Having volunteered in Guatemala for 12 years, I found the symposium really moving and motivating,” she says. Indeed, it led Kelly to consider applying to the U’s master’s program in human rights through the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.For fellow Paul Kidder of Brattleboro, Vermont, the UMAC year allowed the former training consultant to reassess his career after suddenly losing a large contract. “I was in shock and had to do something to get unstuck,” he says. “UMAC gave me a clear idea of what my next steps might be.”
In Kidder’s case, that meant learning more about the technology field, a growing market for his productivity and project management coaching business. “I feel ready to step into the next career phase,” he says. “I’m in job search mode, but I know that I no longer want to work full time, nor for a traditional corporation. I want to consult with groups open to making real change in how their people work.”
NEVER STOP REHEARSING
The first group of UMAC fellows finished the program in May. The 2018-19 cohort—which, because of demand, is nearly twice the size of the first one—will launch in early September.
Moen says the inaugural year yielded far more than she hoped for in terms of participants bonding with each other and the quality of the projects produced.
“I’m proudest of the way they formed a learning community,” she says of the fellows. “And of the unexpected success of the intergenerational learning experience. The fellows loved being with the undergraduates and it was mutual. They learned from each other and some even remain in contact.” Moen and colleagues spent the summer revising the program’s curriculum and scheduling speakers and other special events for the coming academic year.
Moen believes so strongly in the UMAC initiative that she’s helping fund it. Her endowed chair pays for part of the salaries of Peterson and a graduate research assistant charged with interviewing fellows before, during, and after the program. “My McKnight Presidential Chair is very important and helpful,” she says. “It provides a cushion of support that was especially critical during our first year.”
In addition, Moen makes personal contributions to the 30-year-old interdisciplinary Life Course Center she directs, which is home to UMAC. “As funding for the center has dried up in recent years, it is surviving on a shoestring,” Moen says. She hopes to see the Life Course Center, and especially UMAC, grow, thrive, and one day provide scholarships for some of the fellows. (Tuition for the program costs $15,000.) “We want to be open to as broad a range of people as possible,” she says.
Moen believes providing participants with time, space, and a supportive environment to think about what they want next is a role public universities can and should play in the years ahead. “I believe universities can be a catalyst for changing how we think about age, work, and intergenerational learning, and can help older workers transition to their next career, just as they once helped them transition to the first one.”
Lynette Lamb is a Minneapolis writer who’s already well into her own third act.
ARE YOU READY FOR YOUR ENCORE?
When choosing fellows for the University of Minnesota Advanced Careers (UMAC) program, founder and McKnight Endowed Presidential Chair in Sociology Phyllis Moen says she’s seeking true learners—“people who want to do something different with their lives”—who are:
• Recently retired or near retirement
• Transitioning from career jobs
• Good communicators who appreciate being part of a group
• Available 12 to 15 hours during the work week
• Open to change and new ideas