Characteristics of Second-career Occupations: A Review and Synthesis

Published: 2017


This study is a literature review of research related to the characteristics of second careers undertaken after mid-life. There is a significant lack of literature directly on this topic, so we draw substantially from the literatures about retirement, bridge jobs, encore jobs, and unretirement. First, we provide a working definition of second careers after mid-life. We then provide a brief background of the existing theoretical research related to this topic, which is also in need of updating and synthesis. We find evidence that second careers may already be common, but likely are undertaken by less than half of older workers. For older workers in general, job flexibility and lower stress seem to be particularly prized job characteristics that they seem willing to trade off against earnings, benefits, and prestige. However, individual fit is also likely to be particularly important in learning about second careers. We also find useful information in studies of specific early-retiring occupations and destination second careers. Based on the existing general, late-life labor supply literature and specific occupation literature, we propose new directions for research. An important take-away is that data limitations have been a roadblock; however, forthcoming resources may help open up this area of research.

Key Findings

    • We define second career employment as employment after leaving a long-term career position after the age of 40 in a different occupation and/or industry than a worker’s prior career, with (1) advancement opportunities, (2) significant hours and wage/salary income, and (3) the expectation of working five or more years in the new career. The definition of second careers has some overlap with definitions of bridge jobs, encore careers and unretirement, but the phenomenon is not fully covered by any of these related concepts.
    • A major finding of this review is that, although there is a substantial research literature on late-life labor supply focused on retirement and transition paths between work and retirement (e.g., bridge employment and unretirement), there is surprisingly little research that directly addresses second careers, or re-careering. This confirms the lack of literature noted by other researchers. Thus, characteristics of second career jobs are difficult to identify. Our review of the prevalence of related work transitions, such as bridge employment and unretirement, suggests that second careers may already be relatively common. However, we think that less than half of older workers engage in second careers.
    • For older workers, job flexibility and lower stress seem to be particularly prized job characteristics that they seem willing to trade off against earnings, benefits, and prestige. It is premature, however, to conclude that these would be necessary or sufficient characteristics to make a job attractive as a second career. Adding depth and breadth to our characterization of attractive second careers will depend on development of richer data resources. One project to create better life histories of occupational data is already underway: the Life History Mail Survey, a part of the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), will soon have occupation and industry data about jobs spanning HRS respondents’ lives.
    • Our review of specific occupations underscores the importance of individualized paths and the greater options that may be open to individuals preparing and transitioning into second careers in their 40s and 50s as opposed to their 60s and 70s. This research also suggests that individuals considering a move to a second career should take into account their “soft skills” or other potentially transferable skills acquired in activities outside of their main career (i.e., education, volunteering, or moonlighting).
    • To date, the assumption seems to be that the options for encouraging longer working lives include staying longer in career jobs, seeking part-time work with very low barriers to entry (e.g., Uber), or encore careers that give back but don’t necessarily pay the bills. However, this work suggests that individualized career planning, plus re-training and acquisition of additional education in workers’ 40s and 50s may be a promising route to better job satisfaction and long-term financial health, as well as later retirement.


Helppie-McFall, Brooke, and Amanda Sonnega. 2017. “Characteristics of Second-career Occupations: A Review and Synthesis.” Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Retirement Research Center (MRRC) Working Paper, WP 2017-375.