Why Some Hawai‘i Kūpuna are Pursuing New Careers Later in Life

As many older Americans draw the curtains on their first careers, they are finding ways to open new ones and start fresh. Second acts, also known as encore careers, are becoming increasingly popular as more seniors in the Islands pursue new experiences to make a difference in their communities and in their lives.
Jan Youth Buddhist Minister
Jan youth, 74, worked as a teacher for nearly three decades before pursuing her interest in ministry. she later worked as a minister at honpa hongwanji for six years.
Photos: Aaron K. Yoshino


Jan Youth still remembers breaking the news to her mom almost 25 years ago that she planned to leave her nearly three-decade teaching career to become a minister. A free spirit who embodies the saying, “Don’t take yourself too seriously,” Youth knew she wasn’t the typical candidate for the ministry. She never thought she would be starting again at 51. But she told her mom she would take the risk.


“[My mom] was at the sink and she turned around and goes, in her plantation pidgin, ‘What you like do that for?’” Youth, 74, recalls, laughing. 


Her mom’s reaction, she says, was typical of the times when adults “lived in one house forever and had one job forever.”


But times are changing.


The long-standing pattern of working in one career your entire life is shifting as many older Americans switch jobs later in life. A 2017 AARP survey found that 1 in 3 respondents ages 50 and older would likely apply for a new position in the next three years. Fueled by a longer life expectancy, better education than previous generations, changes to Social Security and pension plans, and a need to save for retirement, this trend, experts say, is likely to continue.


Some older Americans make the switch because of personal or family reasons, while some are laid off. Others want to pursue passions they develop later in life or weren’t able to follow in their first jobs.


Youth’s interest in Buddhism began as a child when she attended Mililani Hongwanji. During her teaching career, she signed up for Buddhism classes. In 1995, she took an early retirement package after working as an educator since 1966.


She left the Islands to study Buddhism at UC Berkeley. It was the first time she’d ever moved away from home, and she lived in the residence hall with a revolving set of religion students, monks and Buddhist scholars. Two years later in a ceremony in Japan, she was ordained a minister.


“What I liked was being able to really see that people learn things because it has significance for their life. There’s something about religion that defines who they are and enhances who they are,” she says. “Participating and engaging in a religious activity is a transformation. As I’m thinking that’s what I aim to do [for my members], it’s actually happening to me.”


Youth still hasn’t pinpointed why she decided to make the huge leap later in life, other than the timing felt right and she hoped the ministry would be a good change. 


“It never dawned on me until the opportunity presented itself,” she says. “The winds were blowing this way, so I went ‘whoosh’ and followed the wind.”


The First (and second) Middle Age

Barbara Kim Stanton AARP State Director
Barbara Kim Stanton switched jobs six times before joining AARP as its state director.


Barbara Kim Stanton is proud to say she’s on her seventh act. At 68, her career experience spans the spectrum: legislation, community outreach and collective bargaining. But it was her personal experiences that led her down a different path.  


She still remembers caring for and visiting her dad at St. Francis Hospice Care after work many years ago. At the same time every day, her dad would tell the nurses to wheel him out to the porch so he could watch Stanton drive up for her daily visits. She says she had the best and deepest conversations with her dad during this time—he shared stories of how he and Stanton’s mother met and what brought him the most joy. 


In 2004, shortly after he died, Stanton’s world shifted again when she was hit by an SUV while crossing the street. She went from caregiver to patient, depending on others for everything from feeding and dressing to using the bathroom. 


“I felt like I had been fast-forwarded into old age,” she recalls. She developed a unique understanding of both sides of senior care. The next year, Stanton took a job as the state director of AARP. “I never thought I would be in a position where I would be advocating for [the senior] constituency. Every job I’ve ever had in the past has enabled me to do this job better.”


In her 13 years with the organization, she says she sees a pattern locally where many older workers are staying in the workforce longer and switching careers later in life. 


National data shows that many Americans, like Stanton, are remaining in the workforce longer—about 40 percent of Americans ages 55 and older were working or actively looking for employment in 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unemployment among older workers ages 55 and older is also low—about 3 percent last year. 


 “There is a first middle age and a second middle age. The first middle age is where you’re really working because you have to work,” Stanton says. “As you become more financially secure and as you look at more personal fulfillment, you start looking at having the freedom to do what you want [in the second middle age]. Retirement [now] is completely different from my parents’ retirement. [Age is] really a mindset.”


Retirement used to be seen as the golden years, where you were free to kick back and pursue your hobbies. Now, that idea seems farther away as retirement and aging have become increasingly expensive with the government raising the full retirement age for Social Security from 65 to 67 and pressure to fund Medicare. 


In the Islands, the high cost of living is compounded by the state’s long life expectancy—82 years, which is the highest in the country. WalletHub ranked Hawai‘i No. 42 on its 2018 Best States for Retirees list. That’s why Cullen Hayashida, eldercare programs adviser for St. Francis Healthcare System, says many seniors need to work after retirement, whether full time, part time, or on a contract or as-needed basis.


“Before we graduate from high school, we have many, many people who are helping us,” says Hayashida, 72. “But when we hit 65, however, we have a third of our life left, but no one’s helping us prepare.”


The Best (and Worst) of Times

Steve Tam Alzheimer's Association


In fact, older workers often must focus on helping others. 


Steve Tam quit his real-estate job after 20 years in the field to care for his dad, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2009. Tam, who was 55 at the time, is part of the “sandwich generation,” a group responsible for raising their own children while caring for their aging parents. 


It should’ve been one of the happiest times for his family—his son had just started college in Oregon and his daughter was doing well in high school. But those happy memories were often tempered by his dad’s Alzheimer’s, which progressed quickly. Tam remembers it being “the best of times and the worst of times.”


“I felt really powerless to help [my dad],” Tam, 64, recalls. “There’s nothing that I could really do to make it better for him. That’s where I was looking for something where I felt I could make a difference and help out somehow.”


Tam started volunteering with AARP in 2010, which led to his first encore career as the nonprofit’s advocacy director. 


Nonprofits and charities can often offer valuable career opportunities for highly skilled older workers looking to pursue a new passion, says Judy Bishop, owner of Bishop & Co., an employment and recruitment services business. Bishop says she has seen an increase in highly skilled older workers looking for jobs. 


For those who were laid off and are looking in the same fields, it is difficult to find a similar job, she says. If they’ve exhausted all avenues, Bishop advises them to adapt their skills to comparable fields.


Tam leveraged his real estate and management background and his ability to work with people from all walks of life to advocate for seniors at the state Legislature during his four-year career at AARP. He learned so much about multiple public-policy issues, including long-term care, Social Security and Medicare. It was fulfilling but time consuming.


In 2013, Tam’s dad died in the middle of a busy legislative session, when Tam was working 60- to 70-hour weeks. The stress and grief became too difficult to handle while working, so he left AARP to rejuvenate.


When things settled down, Tam began volunteering again, this time for the Alzheimer’s Association Aloha Chapter. His commitment and passion eventually led to a full-time position in November 2017 as the nonprofit’s development director, raising money for its programs, services and research to find a cause and cure. 


“While I can’t find that cure myself, I do want to be able to raise that level of awareness to everyone else in the community,” he says. “It motivates me to do the job.”


Finding motivation is one thing. But letting go of decades of doing things a certain way is another challenge, says Carleen MacKay, a workforce and career expert. Author of Boom or Bust: New Career Strategies in a New America and Return of the Boomers, she says letting go is the first hurdle, and often the hardest, to overcome when finding employment later in life. 


At an encore career seminar at St. Francis in February (organized by Hayashida), MacKay, who says she’s “pushing 80” and has lived in Hawai‘i for nearly four years, advised older job seekers to let go of the idea that they need to find the same job. In the “flexible workplace,” as she dubs it, there are different opportunities such as freelance work and entrepreneurship. Additionally, research marketplace trends and think about who you are and what you want, she says. Networking and social media, especially LinkedIn (and updating your technology skills), can help to expand your search. 


“Your career is not your job. It’s your business, and you are the CEO,” she says. “When I was young at O-dark-hundred, children went to school, the middle years were for work, and the old years were for retirement and dying. Now the difference is every one of these generations has to learn, has to work and lives longer. How exciting is that?”


An Unconscious Bias

Bridget Lueder is excited to start her new career as a hospital administrator. But the path to get there has been riddled with challenges. She previously worked as a ramp agent at Island Air until the company closed last year. 


She didn’t know where to turn when she suddenly found herself out of a job at age 44, but eventually took it as a sign to follow her passion of helping people. She enrolled as a human services major at Honolulu Community College, and is hoping to make a difference for others and in her own life. (In fall 2017, 933 students ages 50 and older were enrolled in UH community colleges.) 


She also struggled to keep up with schoolwork while working full time in Bargreen Ellingson’s shipping department and taking care of her family. 


“The other day when I was really getting down on myself … I literally had to motivate myself and say, ‘OK, this is where it stops. If I don’t do it, I’m only letting myself down,’” she says. “The main thing is I want to do what I love, and helping people is what I love.”


Although she turns 45 this year, her journey to a bachelor’s degree will take about two to three more years. Applying for jobs later in life makes her nervous, “being that I’m older and starting something new.”


Age discrimination in the workforce is a major problem, says Stanton of AARP. The nonprofit found that 2 out of 3 workers ages 45 to 74 say they’ve seen or experienced age discrimination at work. But the ways to combat the problem are often complex. 


Stanton says AARP educates employers about age discrimination and advocates for seniors’ rights and benefits at the state Legislature. It starts the moment you apply for a position. AARP advises older job seekers to leave out dates of education, early job history and age on résumés, and to focus on recent qualifications and accomplishments relevant to the new position.


Other tips from AARP include anticipating and preparing responses to tough interview questions, such as why you are looking for a new job and what you can bring to the company. Also, during interviews, emphasize your attitude, skills and experience and how it can all help in your new career. 


Job seekers should also communicate to employers what they want and need, says Lisa Truong Kracher, Staffing Solutions of Hawai‘i president. If an older worker wants to transition to a less stressful, lower-level job, Kracher informs the employer of that desire. Otherwise, companies may believe older workers are overqualified and not a good fit.


Workers can also file charges of age discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which received nearly 18,400 such charges in fiscal year 2017. That number has steadily decreased from about 22,900 in fiscal 2012. 


“Ageism is one of those unconscious biases,” says Margaret Perkinson, director of the UH Center on Aging. “That’s a huge first step, to increase the awareness that older adults can be really productive, contributing members of society. But an older adult can be just as ageist—you keep hearing these things and you start incorporating it into your own identity. We really need to break out of that idea.”


A New Path

Jan Youth Buddhist minister


Youth, the former teacher turned minister, knows that encore careers aren’t for everyone—some people can’t swing the risk financially or have kids or parents who depend on them. She was able to get a scholarship to fund her studies and her sons were older at the time. For her, the stars aligned.


“I probably thought I was going to have one job [when I was younger]. I grew up in that culture,” she says. “[But] the more opportunities people have, how much better it is.”


When Tam, who worked in real estate for two decades, started his new position at the Alzheimer’s Association last year, he too felt it was meant to be. He and his family had been through so much in the past decade, but he knows it led him to work harder every day to help families who are in his shoes.


“It’s like destiny, this job here. All of this time, it’s always to honor [my dad] because he had such a big impact on changing me,” he says. “The last 10 years, while at times were very stressful, were probably some of the most rewarding times of my life.” 


Tips for Changing Careers Later in Life


Don’t expect or pressure yourself to find the same job with the same pay.



Expand your search to new and different opportunities. Instead of full-time work, consider part-time, contract or project-based jobs.



Talk with professionals in your new field. “It’s not who you know, it’s who knows you,” says Carleen MacKay, a workforce expert. Learn from them and do your own research.



And create a LinkedIn profile to expand your search.



If you want to move to a less stressful job and are OK with taking a pay cut, tell the employer that. Otherwise, experts say employers may think older workers are overqualified and not a good fit.