by Sarah White
Originally published February 3, 2016 on the Association of Personal Historians blog.
Millions of Baby Boomers are reaching traditional retirement age with an unprecedented bonus of relatively vigorous years ahead. In response, many of us are reaching for an “encore career”—a term that has come to mean applying the seasoned skills and experience of older people for social impact. Starting a personal history practice offers an attractive encore career for Boomers in search of flexible, self-directed work that serves a purpose and feeds a passion while creating a bridge from past employment to full retirement.
Combining purpose, passion and a paycheck
A MetLife study from 2011 estimated that roughly 31 million Americans ages 44 to 70 are interested in encore careers. What are we looking for?
- Income that will help us postpone claiming Social Security
- Flexible scheduling that allows us to pursue hobbies and manage our responsibilities
- Opportunity to meet a community need or social challenge
Many will find the encore career they seek through taking a job with a business or nonprofit organization. But according to that MetLife study, nearly half (48%) say they are interested in becoming entrepreneurs. A follow-up survey found that among those potential encore entrepreneurs, two in three would consider their ventures worthwhile if they earned less than $60,000 a year. Nearly one in five said earning less than $20,000 would meet their definition of worthwhile.
The social impact of personal history work is easy to imagine and research is beginning to back up that instinct. Improved physical and emotional wellbeing of those who participate in sharing memories is one result; increased resilience in children and adolescents who know their family stories is another. The transfer of core values has preserved family wealth and sustained family businesses through succession to the next generation. Reduced isolation and depression among the elderly is perhaps the most easily observed of these impacts. Anyone who wants to improve the experience of older people in their community will find an opportunity to make a difference in a personal history encore career.
The business of personal history
So what, exactly, do personal historians do? We help our clients record, preserve, and share their stories. These are often the stories of individuals and families, but we also work with community groups, religious organizations, companies, and institutions. The products of our work take many forms—from printed books to video or audio recordings, or increasingly, digital archives that collect a family’s stories, photos, and other precious mementos online.
Unlike genealogists, personal historians frequently research and write about people who are still alive. We step into our clients’ lives for a time, encouraging them to reminisce about events and experiences, and capture observations and lessons to create a legacy for generations to come.
We typically work alone or with two or three partners or employees. Many of us come from backgrounds in counseling, healthcare, journalism, history, or marketing communications. Some of us have been entrepreneurs in our previous careers, but many of us find that starting a business is another of the skills we need to learn, along with the technical specialties required to deliver high-quality products in our chosen media.
Association of Personal Historians to the rescue
Building a personal history practice can take several years, as it takes time to learn the skills and become known in our communities. But that’s part of what makes it a good fit as an encore career. Boomers frequently make this career transition gradually, winding down prior employment while ramping up a personal history practice.
Many intentionally design their businesses to be part time. A 2014 survey by Encore.org found that “encore careerists” on average work about twenty-one hours a week, and anticipate devoting five to fourteen years to their encore careers. That is consistent with the experience of APH members, many of whom design part-time businesses they intend to run for a decade or more.
Thanks to a vibrant annual conference, online education program, and engaged membership, APH has become the premier community for sharing best practices and specialized knowledge about personal history.*
There has never been a better time to start your encore career as a personal historian. Not only does the tsunami of retiring Baby Boomers create a rapidly growing market of consumers for our services, but APH offers members marketing aids to get their businesses up and running, including a Personal History Marketing Video.
Encores are for everyone
People who are now considering encore careers span the full educational and economic spectrum, the 2014 Encore.org report states. The opportunity to start a personal history business in your life’s next chapter is open to anyone interested in finding satisfying work, self-expression, and a meaningful contribution to society. Diverse populations need their stories preserved and will be likely to choose the services of someone with cultural competency in their particular background.
“I love that I get to be a witness, to watch history come alive as people share their stories!” is a comment typical of personal historians, when asked about their profession. Could this be the encore career for you? Contact me to find out more at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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*On April 28, 2017 the Board of Directors of the Association of Personal Historians voted to conclude operations. Trends affecting many professional associations, including the ability to network and educate oneself using free and low-cost online platforms, spelled the end of this group, which I had served in numerous volunteer capacities since 2002, including as its president 2012-2015. “APH had served its purpose–to advance the profession of helping individuals, organizations, and communities preserve their stories– many times over,” wrote the Board in its final message to APH members.
Broad recognition of the importance of saving life stories has emerged and is garnering more media attention with every passing month. There is truly no time like the present to start an encore career as a personal historian. But to my great sadness, future “newbies” will no longer find content and community under the welcoming umbrella of APH.