At midlife, taking lower pay to begin more satisfying careers
By Arlene Gross
Special to Newsday
11:07 AM EST, January 4, 2008
Mary Ahern had (experimented) in art for many years, but had never been able to actually make a career of it. Until four years ago, that is, when she made the switch to full-time artist.
“I had always been a creative artist,” the Northport resident, explained. “Life, however, intervened, and as a single parent, I was never able to create my art on a full-time basis.”
Changing careers at midlife is no small feat, and switching to one with substantially less earning potential is more difficult still. According to Randy Miller, founder and president of ReadyMinds, an online career counseling service, downsizing a career can be a source of great anxiety.
Newsday photo of Mary Ahern painting in studio
Yet for some people, any fear or hesitation is mitigated by the yearning to follow a dream. Seeking more spiritually uplifting endeavors can be the ultimate challenge, and Miller said any attendant loss of income is often compensated with a renewed sense of purpose and newfound happiness.
“There are a lot of people who go through life and think, ‘What if?'” Miller said. “With a strategic plan, coupled with the new passion and ultimate objective of doing something different, one can more easily achieve their ultimate goals.”
For Ahern, a new husband provided the impetus and financial support to move forward. Income, the couple concluded, was less relevant to the quality of their lives than the legacy they wish to leave behind.
“When we married, Dave urged me to follow my dream,” she recalled. “The hard part at first was trying to find inside myself what that dream actually was. You spend so much time marching forward and doing what you do, you lose the essence of yourself.”
Once their five children — all from previous marriages — were finished with college, Ahern felt it was OK to follow her calling.
“My income from my art doesn’t yet come close to the money I’m used to making in either my career in computer graphics equipment sales or my own graphics design firm,” she said.
One of her greatest sacrifices was a big dip in retirement savings, which now come exclusively from her husband’s salary.
“We have a comfortable nest egg,” she said, “but by coming out of a conventional career, I no longer have the extra cushion to add to my existing portfolio of tax-advantaged savings vehicles.”
Despite her diminished earnings, Ahern says she is happier. “I am living the life I am meant to live,” she said.
Moving beyond money
Though financial rewards are, undoubtedly, necessary for life on Long Island, there are many people, experts say, who yearn for a sense of personal satisfaction and deep-down fulfillment, something that money just can’t buy.
According to career counselor M J Feld, of Careers By Choice in Huntington, more and more individuals are making such changes in their lives. “In particular, because corporate America has become a source of alienation to lots of workers,” Feld said, “we have a lot of folks looking to build their own road. It is no longer about what looks like success; it is about what feels like success.”
For Lisa Hodes, 41, of Huntington, the desire to be closer to her kids and have a simpler life spurred a decision to buy a local business. Hodes had been a stay-at-home mom until her divorce in 2002 necessitated returning to work.
“After being home with my kids, I didn’t want them to feel a drastic change,” she said, so she settled, temporarily, on a management position at a Plainview firm specializing in discounted health plans.
Before marrying, Hodes had worked as a management consultant for Fortune 500 companies, traveling on business a few days each week, three out of every four weeks. “I loved work, but I didn’t have much of a personal life,” she recalled.
At her temporary post, Hodes said, she felt something was always being compromised. “My kids weren’t getting enough of me,” she said, “and I wasn’t getting any of me. Nobody was being satisfied — even though there was a greater earning potential over the long run.”
Searching around for other possibilities, Hodes spotted a “For Sale” sign at Sweetie’s Candy Cottage in Huntington, a sweets emporium minutes from her home, and decided to take the plunge.
“Now I work around their schedule,” she says, referring to sons Cole, 9, and Quinn, 7. “I’m home after school every day and there for anything school-related.”
Another factor in Hodes’ decision to escape the corporate world: her disdain for bureaucracy and having to go through endless channels to get simple decisions approved. “Now if I feel that something should be done, it is done,” she said. “No waiting — just do things for the right reason and get on to the next.”
And now, she adds: “I remember what is important to me: family and living life in a certain way.”
Accomplishing the switch, however, meant losing the security of a regular paycheck.
“It’s a very unpredictable, seasonal income,” she admitted. “With children, that’s very hard. It means I can’t plan for any particular college and retirement savings. The way it works in our house is we only buy things at the holiday season, because that’s when we have a little bit of extra money.”
“You have to admire the courage of someone who gives up their income and their social status for the values that they’re trying to uphold,” said Susan Peterson, president of A-1 Resumes Inc. of East Norwich, who is also an adjunct professor of philosophy at Nassau Community College. “It’s not an easy thing to do.”
Over the past 18 months, headhunter Lhea Scotto-Laub said, she has seen a trend toward baby boomers taking positions with significantly less financial potential than the ones they previously held.
Scotto-Laub, president of Quantum Career Services in Jericho, said these people have realized they “want more — intellectually, emotionally and socially — and that something’s missing. They want more gratification in the new position that they’re seeking.”
After a three-decade career teaching college-level biology, Roberta Koepfer definitely thought something was missing.
“Although I had always enjoyed teaching, when I examined my life, I realized I had grown as much as I could,” the Bayside resident said. “The lab and the lecture hall had become too confining. I felt a need to explore these other spiritual interests I had.”
Her search ended at her daughter Diana’s wedding in 2005, where the ceremony was performed by Kim Kirkley as a celebrant, someone who officiates at ceremonies or rites.
“After speaking with Kim, I instantly felt that I had found the new direction … I had been seeking,” she said.
Two years later, Koepfer, now 65, became a celebrant and has presided over a handful of ceremonies.
She and her husband have never had an extravagant lifestyle, she said, but they have still had to adapt to her lowered income. “I don’t need business clothes anymore,” she explained. “I eat out less. My biggest cut was in buying books.”
Still, the greatest and scariest challenge, she said, was giving up a secure position and knowing that there was no turning back.
“But I wasn’t happy anymore doing what I did,” she declared. “Since I retired [from teaching], a whole new world has opened up for me.”
Recently, Koepfer decided to add the title of chaplain to her resume, and as part of her studies, will be doing a 100-hour internship at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison for women in Westchester.
The joy factor
Another “chaplain-in-training,” Karl Nelson, of Huntington Station, had considered going into semiretirement, with the benefit of savings, a small pension and Social Security payments.
“I was working for a nursing home in Queens,” he said. “While I was there I had to recruit a new chaplain. The three women who applied for the job had all taken this clinical pastoral education.”
While checking one of the candidate’s references, his conversation with the program director piqued his interest in the profession.
After talking it over with his wife, Nelson decided to pursue a new career and in 2006, at the age of 67, began a yearlong course for clinical pastoral education. He is now finishing up a certification program while working as a chaplain at Good Shepherd Hospice in Port Jefferson Station, where he plans to remain once he finishes the course.
Of his 40 years in health care administration, which included serving as chief executive of Booth Memorial Medical Center in Queens, Nelson said, “I had a lot of big jobs with big staff. That work was very rewarding, but it was all management work. It was not dealing directly with patients.”
Now, as chaplain, he ministers directly to patients, counseling them and their families.
“The direct contact with people,” he said, “is so rewarding.”
What he’s losing in income — at the peak of his former career he made over $100,000 a year more than he does now — he’s making up in personal joy.
“I’ve never had a richer, more fulfilling experience in my life,” he said. “As people approach death, they become very aware of the spiritual aspect of their lives. I can help them navigate this journey.”
For years, Nelson ritually set aside 10 percent of his salary toward retirement. Today, he’s living largely on those savings, which, he said, have grown over the years, and he no longer is saving from salary.
His daughter has finished graduate school, so Nelson no longer has to support her. And to further make up for the salary differential, he and his wife have cut back on restaurant meals, movies and theater outings in the city. Vacations are shorter and closer to home, and since he’s no longer commuting, he’s saving on gas, tolls and parking.
“There’s no magic to it — it’s very careful attention to detail and a little belt-tightening. The little things really add up to make a difference.”
Paul Jenssen, 51, of Searingtown, moved from a lucrative career in investment banking to teaching because he yearned to leave a different sort of legacy. The move was made possible by years of prudent living and careful financial planning.
As he and his wife made increasingly more money, he explained, they shifted the higher earnings directly into higher savings. “We didn’t really grow our lifestyles as our incomes grew,” he said.
After years of working and saving for the education of their two children, Jenssen, an investment banker and financial planner, and his wife, Debra Esernio-Jenssen, a pediatrician, realized they could get by with significantly less income if they watched what they spent.
“My goal was to minimize the luxuries so that we don’t have to dip into our savings,” he said.
Luxury cars, according to Jenssen, offer a perfect example of something people can easily do without when they’re downsizing. He traded in his Lexus sedan for a Mazda, and the two have cut back on vacations and dining out.
Jenssen, whose last post was chief financial officer of an investment bank, explained: “I had gotten into accounting by default, to support myself. I always had an idea that I’d like to do something different at some point.”
Over the years, he had pondered career possibilities. “I always liked history as a kid, and I’d thought about teaching for a while.”
A trip to Tanzania in 2007 with a group of high school students from Long Island Lutheran High School in Brookville cemented his decision to teach. He was impressed by African students who, he said, sacrifice everything for their ticket out of poverty: education.
“I would like to teach social studies in a way that connects to the children,” he said, “in a way that I would have liked to have been taught.” Jenssen started taking classes last January and is now observing other teachers, and loving it all.
“To be in school with younger people is fun,” he said, “and I find it very energizing. The side benefit of it is I get to delve into a subject I love and look at it with a more mature perspective.”
Up next for Jenssen is student teaching and completion of his master’s program in education by the end of the summer. Come next fall, he’ll be out looking for a full-time teaching position.
“The idea of having a legacy, more than making money, and at the same time rediscovering history to teach it, is both a challenge and reward,” he said.
For those downsizing careers, living their dream is their reason for being.
Roberta Koepfer sums up the transitional journey with one of her favorite quotes from the ninth century Japanese poet Akiro No Narihara:
“I have always known that at last I would take this road, but yesterday I did not know it would be today.”
Copyright © 2008, Newsday Inc.