The sky’s the limit, regardless of age


By Sondra L. Shapiro

When I was a kid, I used to say I wanted to be a fashion designer when I grew up. When I entered college, I thought about becoming a lawyer. Instead, I capitalized on a natural ability to write.

Still, I often dream about becoming a chef, a veterinarian, an archeologist or a high school history teacher.

It’s not that I’m dissatisfied being a journalist. I just like knowing if I really wanted to, I could change the direction of my life.

Believing the sky is the limit when it comes to fulfilling goals and objectives makes me a typical baby boomer.

Because the women’s movement coincided with my generation, it never occurred to me to put boundaries on my ambitions. And growing up during the Vietnam War helped to form my idealistic nature, my passion for justice. These qualities have helped me to be an effective journalist — and to devote money and time to those less fortunate.

Yet I never take my freedom to choose for granted. I know how difficult it was for the women before me — my mother’s and grandmother’s generations — whose dreams and ambitions were commonly stifled by societal constraints.

But thanks to the more relaxed climate spawned in the 1960s and 1970s — coupled with a longer life span — there’s a new attitude sweeping the country: It’s never too late to re-invent ourselves.

sshapiro_headshotIronically, our free-spirited youth may have given us the qualities to better adapt to a career switch in later life. Unlike our parents who tended to be debt adverse and more financially secure thanks to guaranteed pensions, we have been a generation of spendthrifts and face less financial stability with voluntary 401k retirement plans. Not to mention the recent recession has depleted net worth for many.

When it comes to seeking financial security in old age or pursuing an unfulfilled passion, we boomers have no roadmap to follow. Instead, we are once again forging a new landscape. We are eschewing traditional retirement to go back to school, volunteer, pursue a new career or join the Peace Corps.

The desire to re-invent is ingrained in the boomer psyche. Phrases and words to describe this new stage of life are showing up everywhere — second chapters, reinvent, re-imagine, second acts and encore careers — that imply a second chance, a new beginning.

The number of Americans 55 and over will grow to 112 million in 2030, according to U.S. Census figures. The social impact we have made is already unprecedented. Why stop now?

We are reevaluating our lives and many of us are dissatisfied with our accomplishments. So we are going back to the drawing board. We are leaving the city to open bed and breakfasts or we are learning to fly planes.

Because we are searching for the kind of satisfaction that goes beyond what can be found through a paycheck, I often hear friends say they prefer more vacation time to a raise. Others have nixed a job promotion to spend more time with family. Some are gambling their life savings on new business ventures.

The quest for more meaning is not a narcissistic exercise; it is part of our life’s journey. Perhaps our parents had the same feelings, yet didn’t have the skills or mindset to bring them to fruition.

Whether it’s volunteering at our grandchild’s school or taking care of our own frail parents, the era that helped to shape our values has also created a need to make a difference in the world.

Luckily, there is no shortage of life coaches, financial planners and specialty organizations readily available to help get us started on the right foot.

AARP’s Life Reimagined offers goal-setting advice for careers, health and relationships. It presents six practices that guide individuals through change: Reflect, connect, explore, choose, repack and act. Life Reimagined spreads the word through its website,, and nationwide seminars, retreats and workshops., a nonprofit group, offers programs to help boomers harness and redirect their skills and experience, to create a “vital workforce for change.” (formally Civic Ventures), which was founded in 1997 by social entrepreneur and author Marc Freedman, encourages my generation to devote our second acts to socially meaningful endeavors.

One of its programs is the Purpose Prize that awards $25,000 to $100,000 to individuals who successfully combine their passion and experience for the social good. Reading through the list of last year’s winners is inspiring. Among the seven winners are:

•Former public relations executive Vicki Thomas, 64, of Purple Heart Homes in Weston, who rallies communities around wounded soldiers, providing them with adapted, foreclosed homes that improve quality of life for veterans and whole communities; and

•International public health expert Elizabeth Huttinger, 63, of Pasadena, Calif., who founded the Projet Crevette (The Prawn Project) that aims to eradicate human schistosomiasis — a chronic disease infecting millions of the world’s poorest.

To many of us, the works of these two women may seem far more significant than anything we can imagine doing. Yet even simple goals can bring much satisfaction and make a huge difference. Why not volunteer at a food pantry, hospital or animal shelter one day a week?

I may not go back to school to become a chef, but I do enjoy experimenting with recipes and learning about food preparation and technique. I probably won’t become a veterinarian, but I may volunteer at the local cat refuge. Though I probably won’t become an archaeologist, it is conceivable that I could participate in a local dig someday.

Today, more than ever before, we have the ability to make our dreams a reality. Or, at the very least, reshuffle our schedules to include some of the things that we find satisfying.

Sondra Shapiro is the executive editor of the Fifty Plus Advocate. Email her at Follow her online at, or