Boomers ‘retire’ to a new career, pursue more education
Photo by Lance Henderson
When Carol Hogan started at Whatcom Community College in 2006, she immediately became the sports editor for the college paper.
She had many things in common with others who had held the position except for one thing — Hogan is 74 years old and has nearly 30 years of journalism and public relations experience.
“I remember asking my instructor, ‘Do you think people are going to buy this?’” Hogan said.
Aside from her professional experience, Hogan had also been in and out of colleges and universities in California and Hawaii taking journalism, photojournalism and creative writing courses that always helped her career but never amounted to a degree.
Greg Marshall, director of community education at Whatcom Community College, said Hogan is by no means alone. In fact, he said approximately 2 percent of the college’s student body consists of older returning students.
Even though that number may seem small, Marshall said the tide of older students is rising as baby boomers, the 76 million people born between 1946 and 1964, are retiring and realizing they have 20 or 30 years of retirement ahead of them and they need to decide what to do with the rest of their lives.
“What happens if 5 percent to 10 percent of our student population is in that age bracket?” Marshall asked. “Do we have the services? We know that a lot of what we have to do is not change what we offer but instead provide the services to support that influx of students.”
Hogan has seen this trend at the community college and has even written a paper on it during her time at WCC.
“The population influx of those over 65 is just going to be enormous,” Hogan said. “This school needs to be ready for it, and in fact they are already looking at it.”
Beginning this fall quarter, Whatcom Community College has launched the Encore! program, which so far consists of a few not-for-credit workshops, such as “Medicare 101” and “Caregiving Options for Your Parent.” Marshall said these first workshops reflect how baby boomers are often taking care of aging parents.
Marshall said the college is analyzing where the boomers are going and what they want to do with the next phase of their lives.
“It’s like in business — you’ve got to look out into the future and ask, what is the trend? What do we have to be prepared for? It’s kind of exciting because it hasn’t happened before to have this large of a group coming back to school,” Marshall said.
Marshall said that the college has to be aware that the idea of retirement has fundamentally changed as life spans have lengthened.
“I know when my grandfather worked years and years ago, the average was that you lived seven years after you retired. It was a death sentence to retire,” Marshall said. “Now they are looking out at 20 or 30 years and are left saying, ‘What do I do?’”
The retirement transition
Something that unites most boomer students, Marshall said, is that they are often in a state of transition from what they have done for most of their lives to what they will do for the rest of their lives.
“It’s a transition and it’s going to happen between the ages of 50 and 70,” Marshall said. “I have a couple of 90-year-olds who have responded in some surveys that they are still transitioning.”
Marshall said the college’s priority now is to be aware of these trends and make sure the college is prepared with services, workshops and short-term training for students and staff.
“We are working to make sure the teachers are educated in how to work with older students and that we have classes in the areas that they are interested in, which will eventually mean adding classes and adjusting class loads,” Marshall said.
According to local and national surveys, Marshall said boomers seem to be interested in the medical field, business and writing as well as wanting one-year or less certificate programs.
“So we are looking at having shorter programs that take the knowledge they already have and convert it to another field,” Marshall said.
Hogan said she thinks the most important thing the college is working on within the Encore! program is classes for credit.
Hogan said she has friends over 40 years old who are coming back to school because their kids are older now and they have interests they have never pursued, like an art or cooking class.
“I’m not really into taking classes on how to cook anymore — I am after the diploma,” Hogan said. “If I am going to spend my time in a classroom and doing all the homework and spending all the hours that I have to, I want credit for it.”
Addressing issues for those 55 and better
Gary Smith, regional manager for WorkSource Northwest, said WorkSource Whatcom sees a variety of people over 55 come in for a myriad of reasons.
“There’s the desperate 79-year-old who needs to buy food. There is the retired executive who is highly skilled but has left the high-stress corporate environment and is seeking a way to do something,” Smith said. “For every person, there is a story there.”
Smith said WorkSource operates a program that takes income-eligible seniors and assigns them to a nonprofit or a governmental organization where they are able to build employability skills.
“Our performance is excellent in that program,” Smith said. “We are exceeding our scheduled performance goals by 165 percent.”
WorkSource Whatcom also stays open until 7 p.m. every second and fourth Thursday because they got feedback from those 55 and older that the daytime hustle-bustle was a bit intimidating, plus they did not have the computer skills to use the center’s many computer-based employment tools.
“It’s a bit quieter here in the evenings, and they are able to get more individualized attention as they work toward employment,” Smith said.
Smith said WorkSource Whatcom also utilizes this time to hold regular roundtable meetings that specifically address the needs, concerns and issues facing workers 55 and better.
“That’s been very popular and we’ve been able to do that for several years now,” Smith said. “It’s one of the ways that people become aware of our 55 and better programs.”
Technology can be intimidating for anyone but perhaps even more so for people who grew up before there was a computer in every house. But, Smith said, thanks to a Microsoft Unlimited Potential grant, WorkSource Whatcom offers free basic computer skills to anyone in the community regardless of age.
“The instruction is targeted at employability,” Smith said. “We are building people’s technological literacy so they can re-enter the workforce.”
Even though Hogan had been in and out of colleges throughout her life, brushing up on technology was one of the things that lured her back to school.
Completing the circle
In 2004, Hogan was retired from magazine writing and was working as a photojournalist for the Orange County Register in California, but her mind began to wander back to writing.
“I wanted to start writing for magazines again, and because of the digital age and submissions by e-mail and everything, I needed to find out what was going on and what was new in the world of writing,” Hogan said.
Now, Hogan is close to graduating from Whatcom Community College with plans to transfer to Western Washington University to finish her journalism degree.
“It will complete the whole circle,” Hogan said.
As Hogan continues on her collegiate journey, she said she sees the differences she has with her fellow students, but also the similarities.
“I’ll never have the same experience in college as an 18-year-old Running Start student or even a returning student at 28 or 29,” Hogan said. “But by the same token, we all participate in certain things — we all have to be in class on time and we’re expected to be involved in our studies. I treat myself as a student and I don’t expect anything different because of my age.”
Recently, Hogan began blogging for WCC’s Encore! Web site and she also took a remote online class on interpersonal communication.
“I loved the online class,” Hogan said. “I went to Hawaii. Doing it online is wonderful if you’ve got the computer skills.”