Competing for Internships with Mom and Dad

Boomers seeking out new, more meaningful careers want some of the same opportunities as youngsters.

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College grads applying for AmeriCorps or summer internships could someday find themselves in a pool with some unexpected applicants: their parents.

That is, if America's boomers have their way. According to a new study from the MetLife Foundation and Civic Ventures, a think tank that focuses on work and social purpose, 9 million people between the ages of 44 and 70 are currently in the midst of "encore careers"—begun later in life in areas that serve the public good, like healthcare or education. That population is expected to grow.

This midlife transition is not unlike the transition from college to the working world, says Jim Emerman, executive vice president of Civic Ventures. And as there are programs featuring financial aid and internships to help those youngsters through the switch, he says, "We could repurpose some of these same ideas for people who want to make this transition into an encore career."

The idea that these encore workers might be vying for the same opportunities as twentysomethings, says Marci Alboher, vice president at Civic Ventures, "is something that concerns us a lot."

But Alboher adds that, while she believes that there is some intergenerational competition for opportunities, "if it's competition about helping in the world, you have to feel a little differently about that."

According to the study, those who are currently considering encore careers list grants, scholarships, and national service programs as the factors that could best help them through the transition. The study points to service opportunities like service corps as "a pathway for boomers, not just young people."

However, many opportunities available to this older set are specifically geared to their demographic. While AmeriCorps has no upper age limit on some of its programs, it also features Senior Corps programs specifically targeted to Americans 55 and older.

When boomers get internships, Alboher adds, it is also not often the case that they beat out a pool of younger applicants. "When we see someone at an encore stage doing an internship...usually it's because they self-created that relationship with a nonprofit," she says.

Many of the jobs that these older Americans take are slower-paced and part time, as this demographic looks to earn money but also slow down and contribute to society in the latter stages of a working life, says Alboher.

It's not simply that these workers hit their golden years, get bored, and look for a change. According to a phone survey performed as part of the study, of people over 45 in encore careers who had made significant career changes, 21 percent say they made the change because they wanted more income, making it the top reason given; 17 percent said they had been laid off or fired. Meanwhile, 17 percent wanted a job with more meaning or purpose, and only 7 percent "just wanted a change."

The trend of people in these encore careers mirrors broader labor market trends. Economic challenges, as well as shifting demographics, mean that many workers now need to work past traditional retirement age.

The labor force participation rate for Americans 65 and older has risen steadily over the last decade, from 13.2 percent in 2002 to 17.9 in 2011. Thus far in 2012, that rate has been at or over 18 percent. In contrast, the participation rate for the population 25 and older has dropped off slightly, from 67.2 percent a decade ago to 65.8 last year.

"The average life expectancy has increased quite a lot in the last century," says Emerman.

"People are living much longer and they're healthier," and they need more finanical resources to carry themselves through their long lifespans, he adds. "People need and want and are able to work longer. What are they going to do?"