Featured Woman | Kerry Hannon: How to Make the Most of Your Second Act

Nearly three of every five working retirees see retirement as a chance to shift gears into a different line of work, according to a 2014 Merrill Lynch study. Thirty-seven percent of those surveyed take steps toward that goal in the five years before retirement. That figure, the study notes, rises to 54% when retirement is only two years away. This re-engagement, or second career, usually occurs after a brief hiatus immediately post-retirement but, once started, lasts about nine years.

Welcome to the world of second act careers, a world with which AARP Jobs Expert and Great Jobs columnist Kerry Hannon is intimately familiar. Hannon is a noted expert on second act careers — she coined the phrase “Second Acts” while writing the column by that name for U.S. News & World Report.

Hannon is a contributing editor and Second Verse columnist at Forbes, and an expert and regular columnist on personal finance and careers for women over 50 at the PBS website She’s written 10 books advising women about their careers and finances, with a particular focus for those who are 50-plus.

PRiME caught up with Kerry Hannon to learn some of her best tips about second careers and finding meaning in this next phase of life. Here’s what she had to say.

PRiME: What are your top five tips for women interested in second act careers?

 Kerry Hannon:

  1. Don’t do anything rash. “It’s really important that you take your time and do your homework. Make sure that there is a need in the market for what you want to do, that it’s something you really want to do. Do some soul searching. Reach out and network. Talk to people doing those types of jobs.”
  2. Volunteer or try the job first. “Moonlight, however you want to phrase it. Add any skills you might need.” Transitioning to a second career successfully can take three to five years, Hannon says. “People think they have a passion but when they start doing the job, they realize it’s not so dreamy. So if you can moonlight on the weekends, it makes sense.” She tells the story of a woman corporate attorney who loved to garden. She thought her second act career would be a landscape design business. “But when she did it, she hated it,” Hannon says. “It was so solitary. Gardening had been her respite. Sometimes it works to use your hobby but she was a people person.”
  3. Get financially fit. “If you have the time do a budget,” Hannon says. “Where you can, downsize and trim. Pay down debt. Debt can be a dream-killer. If you’re not debt-free, you’re not nimble [to react to whatever might arise in your second career.] Chances are, you will make less than you made before.
  4. Give yourself time. “Start [that second career] on the side and inch into it.
  5. Don’t think of second act careers as forever. “It’s like a patchwork quilt. You might do something for a few years and then do something else. Don’t get in the mentality that it’s all or nothing for the rest of your life. People get scared about second careers, worried they have to reinvent themselves and get new skills. But you’re not reinventing yourself. You’re redeploying skills you already have.

PRiME: What drives women, in particular, to take on a second act career?

Kerry Hannon: “What I’ve found is both men and women look at this stage in their lives …both genders have this curiosity — is this what it’s all about? We’re losing people we love, not just our parents. We’re getting our own health crises. It pulls you up short. There’s got to be more to life.

“But men have a more difficult time with their egos and starting over as a greenhorn. The greenhorn blues. It’s very much a psychological turn that men seem to have a harder time grappling with. Women are more hardwired to start on this path and not have their egos so tied up in it. Maybe it’s because women have stepped out of the workplace or downsized their work while they had kids. So they have some experience trying it. Women are also more patient. They are more willing to take time and do the homework. They have more patience to let a business grow over time.”

PRiME: What role does philanthropy play in women’s second act careers?

Kerry Hannon: “It’s huge. It’s a big part of what women are interested in at this stage of their lives. By nature, women are more giving. In this stage, philanthropy is very important. Doing work with social impact is high on women’s radar.

“There are so many ways to do that. The best way to get back in is by volunteering, doing things that use your skills.” Hannon ticks off project management and fundraising as two examples. “A job may percolate right there where you are and you’re networking. You can see the opportunities you might fit into.”

“Most of us want to get paid. It may not be the same as before, but it makes you feel valued,” Hannon continues. “Find something you care about.” Hannon offers a few websites that she feels are particularly good for helping people explore philanthropic second careers:

  • (second acts with social purpose)
  • (pairs people with appropriate nonprofits looking for particular skillsets)

PRiME: What are your top tips for women for getting a job after 50?

Kerry Hannon: “First, ageism is alive and well in the workplace, and that’s true for women more than men.”

  1. Get physically fit. “Pay attention to your appearance. People do judge a book by its cover. If you’re physically fit, you give off this energy and can-do spirit and employers say ‘I want what they’ve got.’”
  2. Stay current on technology and media trends. “The other big concern [from potential employers] is that you’re not up to speed with technology. Ramp up your social media skills.”
  3. Be willing to learn. “They’re worried you’re stuck in your ways. Show them you’ve taken a workshop in [XYZ] and have this certificate. Show eagerness to learn.”
  4. Be flexible about salary. “They worry you want too much money. If you really want a certain job, be flexible about that salary. Negotiate for more vacation days. The job you want over 50, you probably want more flexibility in your schedule. Negotiate around benefits that make up for the salary. Think of ways you can get around that salary.”
  5. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help. “Women need to pick up that 1,000-pound telephone. Have informational meetings. You never know where you might find a job opportunity.”
  6. Cast a wide net. “Talk about jobs you might want to do. Ask people to introduce you to someone else. You’re not asking for a job. You’re asking for insight.”

PRiME: What are the key skills women post-50 should maintain and/or update to stay relevant as they consider second careers?

Kerry Hannon: “You cannot let the technological piece slip away from you. You can’t be intimidated by social media. Join LinkedIn Industry. Be an expert. Follow thought leaders on Twitter. Stay on top of your industry, whatever one you want to be in. Be in step on social media and in your field.”

“You have to stay on top of your network,” she continues. “You can’t let it fade away. Stay connected at all stages.”

PRiME: What common mistakes do women over 50 make regarding their finances?

Kerry Hannon: “You can’t afford not to pay attention to your finances. Negotiate for yourself. Don’t be taken advantage of. Don’t throw up your hands and say ‘math is not my thing.’ Start a money club with your friends and read money books. Women are the CEOs of their households but freeze when investing. That’s unacceptable. Do one thing you’re scared about money every day.”

PRiME: Any last thoughts about second act careers?

Kerry Hannon: “It’s a process. None of this happens overnight. Starting a second act or third — it’s building blocks. Take baby steps every day to put that plan into place.”


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