Carbondalians hit the books, launch “encore careers”
Baby boomers working longer
By Nicolette Toussaint
Sopris Sun Correspondent
Mark Chain, Shelle de Beque and her husband Hank van Berlo, all of whom are 60ish, are planning or engaged with “encore careers.” They are part of a national trend. Every day for the next 19 years, 10,000 baby boomers will turn 65. In the past, about 75 percent of them would fully retire within five years, according to a MetLife Mature Market Institute study. But today, fewer than 50 percent of all baby boomers are expected to retire by the time they reach 70.
In a recent interview, Chain, de Beque and van Berlo discussed their reasons for starting second careers, and the challenges that have come with doing so.
Sopris Sun: Shelle, you were an office worker for more than 20 years, and now you’re teaching kids to read. How did that come about?
Shelle: I started working in offices out of necessity. I was a single parent and needed a job with regular hours and insurance coverage. I worked in law offices a lot, and in the mid ‘80s, I worked in a middle school in Aspen. That made me consider teaching. Teachers are wonderful and positive, and it’s fun to be around kids.
Hank: She has magnetism when it comes to kids.
Shelle: It’s more fun to work with five, six and seven year-olds than lawyers!
Sopris Sun: Hank, you were a contractor, and now you’re an EMT. What prompted that switch?
Hank: I was a heating contractor, ran my own business and had 40 years in that business. I was successful, but it became more difficult as the economy changed. I was also a volunteer fireman. When the chief heard I was going to retire, he asked if I would apply to be an EMT. There were other candidates, so I guess that wisdom and experience prevailed over youth and strength.
Sopris Sun: Mark, you were Carbondale’s town planner in the mid-1980s. And now you’re preparing to go into nursing.
Mark: I had been working at an eight-to-five job for 30 years. I would be in meetings and hear the same issues coming back a second, third and fourth time. At the same time, I was managing care for my 80+-year-old mother, who developed Alzheimer’s in her 80’s. My wife had heart surgery in 2001. It was touch-and-go for a while, but I found that more stimulating than reading planning reports or sitting in a meeting.
Sopris Sun: What are your new careers like?
Shelle: Last year, I was hired as (a) Title 1 reading specialist. This year I will still be working with struggling readers as a Title 1 reading intervention teacher. I love working with the kids.
Hank: I work 48 hours straight at a fire station. I answer all the emergency calls. About 90 percent are medical, and 10 percent are everything else: fires, cats in trees, citizen assistance calls. Mostly I’m a medic, and I enjoy that. I’m on call for 48 hours, and then I’m off for 96 hours. We work hard. But there’s more critical thinking, because now I try to make order out of chaos. The days of me being at the nozzle of hose line are not many. PR is lot of what we do.
Shelle: And they get to play with fire trucks!
Mark: I’m in the first year of the nursing program at Colorado Mountain College. The average age is around 35. The other students are mostly women, and everyone has a challenge.
Sopris Sun: Was it hard to make such a big change?
Shelle: Yes. One of hardest things was that I had to go back to being a total beginner. Working with younger people was fun, but you are aware of your age. Financially, I was lucky that I had Hank to support me. I probably wouldn’t have been able to make the change on my own.
Mark: I agree with Shelle about how humbling it is. When you have a lot of reading and it’s 11 at night, you feel the difference. At 21, I could go to 3 a.m., but now I am yawning. I don’t have the energy I did 20 years ago. Financially, I will make it through, taking a little from savings, with scholarships, living on the cheap, eating rice. The support I get from my wife is crucial.
Hank: I concur, especially about the humbling part. I had to become a family member with a group of 20-somethings. Many were thinking, “Is this guy going to be an anchor around our neck?” I’m gregarious, so I thought, “I will fit in.” But I had to work at that, especially in the classes. EMS is excruciating when you have to learn a whole new language, body systems and how all of that integrates.
Shelle: We have grown children and grandchildren, and I didn’t see them as much as I would have liked. I was so busy for a while that I couldn’t go for hikes, or go skiing with friends.
Hank: I didn’t realize that I would have two families. These are AA or AAA personalities. Everybody has their own opinion about how things should be done, and it’s the best opinion. Being older and wiser, I have to hold my tongue sometimes. One-third of my life is spent with another family, and it’s all male.
Mark: I like to exercise three or four times a week. At one point, I didn’t exercise for six weeks! There were no movies, no recreation. And my situation is the opposite of Hank’s. Only two out 24 students in my program at CMC are men.
Sopris Sun: Are you glad you did it?
Hank: In contrast to my previous career, this is so personally rewarding! I go home every day feeling that I’m valued. It’s on the public record that, in terms of pay, firemen aren’t very far above the guy slinging fries at McD’s … .
Shelle: That goes for teachers, too. Doing this job, teaching, is the hardest job I have ever done. The law office was high pressure, but when I came home at night, I was done. Now I come home and have lesson plans to write and I wake up in the middle of night planning the next day or thinking about what I could have done better the day before. But I second what Hank said. It’s the most rewarding job I have ever done.
Hank: This work gives me a sense of purpose. I’m very thankful to the board and chief for giving me this opportunity when they had every reason not to.
Sopris Sun: How does this fit with the idea of retirement?
Shelle: If I were to retire now, there would be a lot of time to fill!
Hank: I think that the notion of retirement has changed with our generation. We don’t want to admit that we’re getting older, so we find ways to revitalize ourselves. Change is intellectually stimulating. At some point, I will retire from this, but then again, you have to have a reason to get up in the morning.
Mark: I agree that the concept is changing. People here want to be stimulated and to be doing things. When I’m busy, I get more done. I’m intellectually stimulated again. I can’t see being completely retired — even 20 years from now.