Boomers use early retirement as springboard to new careers

Oct 12, 2005

Associated Press

CHICAGO (AP) – Dreams of a more satisfying life helped spur Dale Vnuk to choose a new career after more than a quarter-century in the same line of work.

So did the constant grousing of co-workers who had soured on the job. Now Vnuk is in the process of retiring early and switching from airline mechanic to water garden builder.

“At 47, it’s either time to do something or sit there and be miserable,” said Vnuk, who opened a water garden store this year with his wife Marcia in suburban Fox Lake, Ill. “It’s just a great burst of inspiration to see that you can still do something and change your life around.”

Americans’ dreams of early retirement, interrupted by the 2000 stock market bust and the 2001 recession, live on. They have been revived in part by the economy’s rebound, soaring home values and the ambitions of baby boomers — although often accompanied nowadays by the realization they’ll still need additional income.

A Merrill Lynch survey last year found that 77 percent of more than 3,400 baby boomers polled planned to work in some capacity in their retirement, with second careers in the mix for some, including 13 percent who intended to start their own businesses.

Barbara Harris launched a new career as a fashion designer in her mid-50s with the aid of an early retirement package from her years as a corporate manager with General Electric and elsewhere.

Pursuing a long-held ambition, she filled a notebook with sketches, spent four months traveling around to contract houses that could make the pieces and started her business in Connecticut.

Today, she runs the growing operation out of New York’s Garment District, drawing on ideas from her corporate background in designing the elegant, upscale clothing line called Multi by Bree.

“To be able to take these ideas from your head to a paper to a garment, and to see that garment sell in the marketplace, is absolutely exhilarating,” Harris said.

The downside of the new career: “If you’re not careful, this turns into real work,” she said with a laugh. Having to deal with business matters can temper the exhilaration somewhat.

Nonetheless, being able to live out a dream she first had as a girl has brought tremendous satisfaction.

“You hear those kinds of conversations all the time — ‘Gee, I always had an interest but I never did anything about it.'”

Jane Paradowski, who retired at age 52 after 31 years in California in city planning and human resources, moved back to her native Monroe, Wis., to work as a clinical psychologist. She got a Ph.D. and went back to work full-time — in part because her stock returns weren’t keeping pace with her retirement ambitions.

In the span of two weekends she went from dinner at Spago’s in Beverly Hills one weekend to a $5.50 fish fry at a VFW in rural Wisconsin featuring a one-man accordion band.

“My California friends cannot understand me,” said Paradowski, now 59, who works at a clinic in nearby Freeport, Ill. “They think I’m going nuts. But I’m loving life. A lot of that is because I’m loving my job.”

Money worries aside, starting a new career is within reach for most people, said Steve Vernon, author of the retirement book “Live Long and Prosper.”

“The barriers are more psychological than financial,” said Vernon, a consultant of Watson Wyatt Worldwide. “People get used to a certain level of (guaranteed) income. Also, a lot of people can’t seem to find the motivation to make a change.”

Staring at a computer screen all day long wasn’t quite what Suzanne Willett envisioned doing for the rest of her life. So she took what amounts to ultra-early retirement six years ago to make one of the unlikeliest career changes imaginable: Wall Street systems analyst to stand-up comic.

Now a suburban mother of two teenagers outside Tampa, Fla., the 42-year-old Willett had set aside money from her high-paying job for years and was able to draw on her stock holdings near the peak of the market. She also knew she could get health benefits through her husband’s plan.

Having written humorous novels, plays and short stories for seven years, she finally decided to put her full-time efforts where her heart was.

“I felt like I’m not going to be 80 years old and wonder if I should have done this — I’m going to do it,” she said.

After starting out doing her material without pay at five open-mike nights a week in Tampa bars and clubs, she worked her way up to regional and national comedy clubs and now performs a one-woman show in theaters and festivals across the U.S. and Canada. The money’s not great — upper $20,000s annually — but it’s getting better and Willett has zero regrets.

“So many people talk to me about this,” she said of the career change, “and I say ‘Do it. Because you’re going to die.'”

Would-be career switchers should focus on what makes them happy and then decide what changes are necessary to make it happen, such as cutting spending and revising schedules to make time for new-career training or studies, said Vernon. Those who fear losing employer-provided health insurance and are healthy may find it a reasonable short-term risk to sign up for a catastrophic health plan with a $5,000 or $10,000 deductible, he said.

Vnuk needs to work another 2 1/2 years for American Airlines to qualify for the benefits he’ll need in retirement. But he’s phasing out already, down to one double shift a week at O’Hare International Airport and spending most other days at his pond business, Wyld Creek Inc.

The decision to leave followed a round of cutbacks at American in 2002, when he took a double-digit pay cut and his wife was laid off as an aircraft washer. Still, the move wasn’t easy, requiring a year-long certification process for Dale, a landscape design degree for Marcia and the sale of their six rental houses in order to fund the new business.

The near-constant grin Vnuk wore as he scrambled around building a demonstration pond at a clinic with customers on a recent Saturday testified that the effort has been well worth it.

“We’re doing what we love, and doing it together,” he said. “It’s just a riot. And it’s rewarding, too.”

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