Best New Ideas in Retirement: Once considered on the cusp of retirement, these people are taking a ‘gap year’ after successful careers


Marjorie Dorr was looking to get her “groove back.”

After retiring from her position as Anthem Inc.’s

chief strategy officer in 2008, she took art classes, learned to teach yoga and became a vegan chef. 

“But I wasn’t passionate about what I was doing after feeling part of something bigger than myself and always growing during my career,” Dorr, 58, said. She had retired early to spend time with her high school-age kids and “get them launched,” but after a while she started to feel restless.

“Frankly, I was bored. I felt like I was stuck. I was looking to get back into the flow and trying all kinds of things. I took random classes, but they didn’t shift my life.” 

Then last year, she and her husband moved to Austin, Texas, from their home in New Hampshire to test it out as a possible town where they would retire full time. Once there, she applied and was accepted to the nine-month Tower Fellows program offered by the University of Texas at Austin.  

The Tower Fellows Program is aimed at adult professionals who spend a school year on campus as full-time students exploring any combination of classes across the university and designing their own curriculum. About 25 fellows are selected.

“It’s a great opportunity for adults to learn new skills more relevant for their next chapter, or who just want to go back and take classes that you couldn’t take as an undergraduate because you had to be practical,” Dorr said. “This is a different chapter to grow in a way that doesn’t have the outcome necessarily of making a living.”

The chance to get back into the classroom alongside undergraduates and graduate students “was exhilarating, humbling, frustrating — all of those emotions of a beginner learner,” she said. “For me, it felt more frustrating than when I was a 20-year-old. I felt panic at the time. I knew I was creating new neuropathways. My brain had become stale sitting out of the work world for some time.

This type of pursuit isn’t only for people with a lot of money to spend. Adult learning is the buzzy trend in education these days. Whether it’s for Gen Xers and boomers pursuing encore careers, creating a business at midlife, or purely pursuing the mental engagement of learning, there are many burgeoning options.

The instruction can be as basic as participating in a free online class to immersion in a grade-free educational experience, as Dorr has done. And the underlying drivers for these new learning platforms are far different from continuing education in the past. 

People are living longer, working longer, and continually boosting professional skills is non-negotiable to stay on the job, particularly given the rapid-fire speed of technological advancements. 

Nearly 68 million Americans say that COVID-19 has caused them to reconsider their retirement timing, according to an Edward Jones study, conducted in partnership with Age Wave, a research firm that focuses on aging. “Three in ten of those planning to retire are thinking about retiring later, predominantly for financial reasons: need for more income, reduction in savings, loss of investment value and increased uncertainty about how much money will be needed in retirement, according to the report. 

Research from the IZA Institute of Labor Economics finds that people who are close to retirement age are just as intent on learning new skills as their younger colleagues. And employers will have a persistent need to provide education for their older workers, according to a recent paper from Mercer. Then too, workers are changing careers later in life, which often means adding new skills.

Finally, the rising tide of adult education is being pushed by the demographics of aging. The number of adults aged 65 and older is expected to nearly double between 2018 and 2060. And by 2034, they will outnumber those under the age of 18. 

As a result, many colleges are facing flat or declining enrollment forecasts. Not surprisingly, adult education as a source of income is increasingly appealing from community colleges to the Ivy Leagues. “Providing programs tailored to their interests and needs is a promising opportunity for both the public and private sectors, while updating the skillets of the 50-plus cohort will give them added credibility in a competitive workplace,” according to an AARP report, The Longevity Economic Outlook.

Hotel entrepreneur Chip Conley, 60, for instance, founded the Modern Elder Academy, in Baja, Mexico, dedicated to midlife learning. For decades, we’ve learned of the value of lifelong learning, but what’s important to and how a person learns at 30 years old is different than when you’re 60,” said Conley. “This is why we’re seeing the emergence of ‘long life learning’ focused on helping midlifers and beyond live a life that is as deep and meaningful as it is long.” 

Washington, D.C. resident Dr. Lisa K. Fitzpatrick, 53, founder of Grapevine Health, has attended four sessions at The Modern Elder Academy. “I truly believe we should all be lifelong learners,” she said. “I was thinking about how to pivot my career and started exploring what it might be like to become an entrepreneur and on that journey, I learned about MEA. It came at a time when I was really burned out. And needed to be in a different environment.”

Lifelong learning for a ‘portfolio career’

There is no shortage of educational opportunities for nontraditional students at leading universities through academic or year-long programs for executives and other professionals. Students can audit classes, attend lectures and work on projects with graduate and undergraduate students.

In addition to the Tower Fellows Program that Dorr attended, these include the Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute, Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative, the University of Notre Dame’s Inspired Leadership Initiative, and the University of Minnesota’s Advanced Careers Initiative

There is also a Fellows program offered by The Halftime Institute.

The basic premise of adult education is transforming. “The lifelong learning concept is happening more and more for people across the arc of their careers because the world is changing, and the skill sets that are necessary are changing,” said Thomas Schreier Jr., founding director of the Inspired Leadership Initiative at the University of Notre Dame. “People are finding themselves at a dead end with no idea of where to go.” 

“Maybe the right idea is that you never really graduate from your university,” he said. “The academic world has not been preparing people for a portfolio career. It is going to have to adapt to help people have these multi-track careers.”

In many cases, the courses are aimed at giving adults the tool kit to redeploy in a new direction. Each academic year fellows, who have had two or three decades of a successful career, are selected to attend these programs and to enroll in classes across the university.

“Institutions of higher education have always been about helping people make a life transition,” Gaylen D. Paulson, associate dean at the University of Texas, and director of Texas Executive Education. “As a large part of the population is approaching Act III in life, universities are poised to enable and equip people for their next phase, whether it be to aggressively retool in an academic or professional environment, or to pursue a more purposeful journey.”

Many of these fellows have gone on to impressive second acts.

In 2012, Doug Rauch, a Harvard fellow and former president of Trader Joe’s, opened Daily Table, a 3,500-square-foot nonprofit market in the lower-income Dorchester and Roxbury neighborhoods of Boston. The idea: to sell groceries and produce at ultra-low prices as well as healthy cooked and ready-to-serve meals at prices intended to vie with fast-food restaurants.

Paul Irving, a partner in a law firm, was also at Harvard and took up the helm as chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging.

And Dr. Juliana Otieno, a Notre Dame Inspired Leadership Initiative fellow from Kenya, was a pediatrician and the CEO of Kenya’s largest research hospital. She returned after ILI and started the Rusalia Resource Foundation which has as its mission to empower West Kenyan girls by providing full high school tuition scholarships and mentorship opportunities, with a special focus on life skills education. 

These programs usually cost $50,000 to $60,000. Minnesota’s program is less expensive at $16,000. And the Halftime fellows program is around $25,000. Some of these fellowships, like Notre Dame’s, provide scholarships.

While there are some financial aid discounts offered, most of the people who sign up for one of these high-profile university programs have retired after successful careers and the tuition isn’t an issue. 

They use them to spark ideas for what’s next as much as anything. 

What a gap year looks like at 60+

For David Jaffe, 61, a former chairman and CEO of Ascena Retail Group, a publicly held women’s apparel retailer, the chance to stride onto Harvard University’s campus last year as a fellow at The Advanced Leadership Initiative was the perfect opportunity “to step back and think of ways I can help improve the world with a little bit of an impact,” he said.

“The fun thing was I have intellectual curiosity to learn and here was this huge range of topics — from systemic racism to health care reform, climate change, and income disparity. It was like drinking from a firehose,” Jaffe said. “Being in this environment opens you up because there are so many interesting people, from speakers to professors, and other students. It forces you to think differently and be more open to listening. The program really pushes people to make a dent in the universe.”

Adds Philip Pizzo, founding director of Stanford University’s Distinguished Career Institute: “Our program has three pillars: renewing purpose, building community and recalibrating wellness and is grounded in a return to higher education,” he said.  “While it is certainly possible to renew purpose, community and wellness in various settings, higher education, whether at a university, small liberal-arts college or community college, provides settings where this process can be enhanced and orchestrated.”

And it is the growing number of courses that combine an intergenerational aspect that can be powerful. “Older adults have often taken continuing studies classes as a way of renewing knowledge in certain areas of exploration, Pizzo said. “But what is different about programs like DCI is the opportunity to sit side-by-side with undergraduate and graduate students and develop opportunities for intergenerational engagement.” 

Some programs serve as career springboards. 

The University of Connecticut’s Encore!Connecticut is a nationally-recognized program, in its 12th year, that assists corporate and public sector professionals, mostly 50+, transition to management opportunities in the nonprofit sector. The experience takes place over eight half-day Saturdays and three Fridays, providing education in nonprofit leadership, management, operations, funding strategies and practices. 

The program helps with nonprofit job search strategies and resume restructuring. Participants learn from, network, and work with seasoned leaders of the Connecticut nonprofit sector, and gain hands-on professional experience working on a two-month strategic project with a nonprofit organization, with a goal of pivoting to a new role or accelerating a career move.

Bringing older adults into the campus fold isn’t a new notion. Many public colleges offer free or reduced tuition both audited and credit courses for those as young as 50, when space warrants. AARP provides a list of state-by-state programs.

The University of Virginia offers classes with tuition and certain fees waived for persons 60 years of age and older, who have been legally domiciled in Virginia for at least one year. Tuition-paying students are given priority. A senior citizen shall only be admitted to a class, tuition-free, after all tuition paying students have been accommodated. 

Many university alumni centers offer a variety of ongoing educational opportunities from live webinars to virtual lectures and excursions. At Duke University, for example, Lifelong Learning for Alumni is a one-stop resource to link to a smorgasbord of learning online opportunities. 

Other options (online these days) to find classes include adult education centers, local libraries, community colleges, and Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes, One Day University, a subscription service ($7.95 a month), offers five live streaming lectures a week and recorded talks.

Adult learning isn’t always in a typical academic setting.

Free or low-priced online classes are available through sites like Coursera, EdX, The Great Courses, LinkedIn Learning, MasterClass, Skillshare, TED Talks and Udemy. 

The Oasis Institute, a nonprofit educational organization, offers Oasis Everywhere, a virtual lifelong learning platform with a menu of online classes for those 50 and older.

GetSetUp is an interactive education platform for the 50+ set delivering virtual education to upskill older adults in the use of software and apps among other subjects.

For older job seekers, classes can be as basic as getting set up on LinkedIn or how to use an Excel spreadsheet. There are also classes on non-work subjects such as getting started with WhatsApp, how to order groceries online and how to navigate the Medicare website. 

But what makes GetSetUp stand apart from other online offerings — it’s virtual, real time peer-based training. All of the classes are taught by older adults to older adults. The “guides” are often former teachers or other professionals like accountants and lawyers.

“Many older adults are coming back to learn how to make extra income from home and how to launch a business,” said Neil Dsouza, the CEO and co-founder of GetSetUp. “They aren’t looking for a certificate or a degree. It is very practical.”

Rachel Roth, who says she “is over 65, but under 100” is the founder of New York City-based OperaNuts, and has relied on adult educational opportunities to launch and grow her business since she launched in 2013. 

Initially, Roth reached out for help from Eileen Roach, now 30. Roth and Roach first met at a New York Public Library branch where Roach was volunteering through New York Cares, assisting older adults with their computer skills. “I honestly didn’t have the technical skills to set up a website and learn to market online,” Roth said. “That’s where Eileen came in to tutor me.”

Roth also found free help at Senior Planet, a unit of the nonprofit Older Adults Technology Services, which assists people 60+ in becoming familiar with computers and navigating the online world via in-person and now online Zoom classes. 

“The culture of adult learning is surging,” said Tom Kamber, founder and executive director of Older Adults Technology Services (OATS). In 2004, Kamber and a group of volunteers launched OATS with “a mission to help seniors learn and use technology so they could live better in the digital age,” he said. “Now there seems to be a rising passion for projects that are intertwined with a desire to learn the tech skills around it.” 

Not surprisingly, it was a passion project that spurred one of the learning goals for Towers fellow Dorr. She wanted to help her son with his newly launched small business, called Mushroom Revival. She signed up for classes to understand more about startups, digital and social media marketing and venture capital. “I had felt like I lost my confidence and didn’t feel adequately skilled to help him,” she said. 

But it took time. “Going back to school was incredibly challenging,” she said. “Even trying to find the right buildings for my classes on the first day, make it to class on time, and navigate the software to upload assignments was a struggle. Now I giggle at myself because it is no big deal — it’s part of the continuum of growth.”

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