By 2050, according to Pew Research Projections, about 20 percent of the U.S. population will be over the age of 65. This is an increase of 7 percent, from the current 13 percent of the population.

The number of those aged 85 and older is expected to more than double, to about 5 percent of this country's population. According to the Population Reference Bureau, the number of Americans aged 65 and older is projected to more than double from 46 million, today, to over 98 million by 2060. The 65-and-older age group’s share of the total population will rise to nearly 24 percent from 15 percent. These statistics may make your head swim, but the message is clear and unambiguous– the population of the U.S. is aging rapidly.

Like many businesses, universities have begun to see this aging phenomenon in their student populations. The population of “non-traditional” students (over 25 years of age), especially on urban campuses, has grown steadily over the last decade. According to InsideHigherEd.com, increases in student debt have been accompanied by increases in the age of students. Borrowers in their 30s or older made up 54 percent of all student debtors in 2005; by early this year, they were almost two-thirds of all borrowers. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, fewer than half of all college students are aged 21or younger.

Non-traditional students, however, are not homogeneous in their motivations for seeking a college education. Broadly speaking, there are two categories of non-traditional students: First, those that are driven by the need to sharpen their skill set to get a promotion in their current job or take their career in a slightly new direction. Second, those that would like to spend their retirement years filling gaps in their knowledge, and acquiring skills that will enable them to do meaningful work, not necessarily based on financial motivations. Many of them are looking to define and pursue an entirely new second career – an “encore career”.

Unfortunately, colleges and universities are only slowly responding to the needs of the first category of non-traditional students. Organization of academic schedules, student and campus services, and even the metrics used to evaluate the performance of our institutions of higher education, assume a traditional full-time student population. The calculation of critical metrics ranging from graduation rates, to the way credits transfer between schools – cater to the "first-time, full-time" – a demographic that is declining on most campuses, and is a minority on many. Many adult students begin their college careers at community colleges. By some estimates, 10 percent of these students lose nearly all of their course credits upon transferring to a four-year university. That's why we are witnessing a rise in alternative pathways to a degree through online education, competency-based education, and more flexible credit transferring policies. While some question the quality of online education, it is often a good option for motivated, working adults who already know how to learn.

In the case of non-traditionals pursuing encore careers, while these careers can be helpful sources of income, financial outcome is often not the key reason for their commitment. Many such careers tend to be in education, nonprofits, healthcare and faith-based organizations as this generation seeks to “self-actualize” and make a meaningful contribution in their life. Based on recent trends, three potential careers are particularly well-suited for retirees:

Consulting

Leveraging experience gained over a long career is a great way to start a new career, and consulting is an ideal outlet. Recently retired professionals, especially, have enough good business contacts to become consultants in their chosen fields. Consulting offers a flexible schedule and the opportunity to take on only those clients with whom one wants to work.

Nonprofit work

Baby boomers still have some of the idealism that set their generation apart, and nonprofit work is a good way to use it. Many baby boomers want to give back to the community and end up working for nonprofits.

Teaching

Whether it’s in a traditional K-12 school or at a community college, teaching can be an ideal outlet for retirees. Many schools, colleges, and universities are looking for instructors who have real-life work experience in relevant subject-areas. This is particularly true in applied disciplines such as Business – accounting, finance, marketing etc.; Trades – welding, automotive repair/engineering, electrician etc.; and Information Technology – robotics, programming, network security etc.

Community colleges are good places to look for teaching positions. For Individuals with significant business experience, Colleges of Business in four-year universities offer attractive positions as adjunct faculty. Some of these teaching positions may require a teaching license. Fortunately, many colleges of education offer fast-track teaching licensure for people who already have a bachelor’s degree.

Finally, many senior citizens look forward to life in a deluxe retirement community with a plethora of physical amenities. Ironically, in retirement it is also quite common for older Americans to find themselves socially and intellectually isolated from their communities. As a consequence, a growing number of retirees who want intensive intellectual immersion are moving to university towns, attracted by cultural and learning opportunities. Consequently, many universities are building retirement communities—or creating relationships with existing ones—that are considerably nicer than the typical college dorm. A typical university-based retirement community offers many opportunities to continue learning - from auditing college courses to attending lectures and classes held at the retirement center. There are film societies, fitness classes, swimming pools, choirs, and jazz and chamber music ensembles. As seniors continue to trade in their leisure time for intellectual and social engagement, universities and colleges will manifest yet another dimension of their social and intellectual investment in the community - rejuvenating and enriching the lives of senior members who still have much to share and contribute.


Dr. Ashok Subramanian

Dr. Ashok Subramanian is the Dean and Joel R. Stubblefield Endowed Chair in the College of Business at the University of Arkansas Fort Smith. He has both a PhD in Information Systems and an MBA from the University of Houston, as well as a BSc in Chemistry and Physics from the University of Bombay, India. He has extensive experience as a consultant and entrepreneur in the IT sector. Prior to his current position at UAFS, Dr. Subramanian’s leadership career includes being Dean of the Harold Walter Siebens School of Business at Buena Vista University, Iowa 

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