When his company restructured him out of a job in his 60s, my dad retired badly. After a successful 35-year career, his world shrunk, he lost his purpose, and he began to decline — mentally and physically.
When I began nearing the age he was when he retired, I started reading about how much longer my generation is likely to live. Sociologists are defining a whole new life stage – an average of an extra 30 years after the family-raising, career-building years. Traditionally, choices at this stage have been full-time work or full-time leisure (of the kind my dad fell into), but many people now want something in between. A new program at the University of Colorado-Denver is designed to address this need.
Back to campus, ready for change
Created for experienced professionals who are nearing or at the end of their primary careers and are navigating transitions in work and life, CU Denver’s Change Makers program offers older adults the opportunity to come to CU Denver for a semester to explore possibilities, reset and renew their purpose.
This fall, 23 Change Makers fellows who had honed a range of skills and talents — from urban planning to engineering and teaching — came to campus ready for a change, to use that hard-earned expertise in new ways, for new jobs or meaningful volunteering.
Drawing on readings, group discussions and guest-speaker presentations in twice-per-week meetings, they’re now looking at what’s worked and hasn’t in their lives, what’s made the encore years meaningful for others, and the pathways, obstacles, and opportunities they face in designing a meaningful next chapter. Many say that part of the power of the program is the collective connections that participants offer each other.
Fellows engage with guest speakers on topics such as change and transition at this life stage, discerning and pursuing purpose in the next chapter, thinking differently about work possibilities, and making an impact in their community. Those who are also auditing academic classes – from modernist art to human-centered design – are inspired by interesting professors and the diversity of thought that comes from learning with a mixed-age group.
The program, which is accepting applications for the spring semester through Dec. 1, is helping the older students spark ideas and new ways of thinking about their next chapter.
Says one, “The consistent messaging that wanting a career change is not a crisis but an opportunity, and that there’s no ‘right answer’ that you have to find in order to correct a course you’ve messed up has been really valuable to me.”
Part of a growing trend
Change Makers is one among a handful of university programs in the country designed explicitly for this life stage, sometimes called the encore years. “Forbes” describes a national (global, even) trend of university programs “designed with change at their core, and a recognition that change at midlife requires the time, space and resources to explore new selves and life options.” In an August 2023 “Atlantic” article titled “The New Old Age,” David Brooks writes, “The human hunger for meaning and fulfillment is strong. And yet America today is too awash in workism and too short on purpose. We shouldn’t have to wait until we’re 65 to learn how to transform our lives. Maybe the people reinventing themselves now in these Encore programs can show the rest of us the way.”
This new life stage is uncharted territory. But one thing we do know: it offers more than the leisure-driven retirement that my dad’s generation experienced. It might offer more work. But it definitely offers more from work (or from volunteering, or from life): more flexibility, more opportunity, and more chances to make an impact.
Anne Button is the founding director of the CU Denver Change Makers program. Learn more at ucdenver.edu/change-makers.