No little kid dreams of being a car salesman when he grows up.
But that’s the career my father landed in after he immigrated to America. And I’ve never heard a little girl say she wants to be a department store clerk one day. But after more than two decades of raising children, that’s the job that found my mother.
Both settled into careers of necessity that paid the bills, like so many people do. That’s not to say they didn’t have dreams of what they wanted to be when they were young.
“I always wanted to be a teacher,” my father said. He had two master’s degrees in political science and history when he came to the United States, and took a few education courses at the University of Houston. Then he learned how much teachers make in this country. It wasn’t going to be enough to raise a large family. He ended up in sales, and later, as a small business owner for many years.
My mother, who grew up in a time where the main expectation was to become a wife and mother, talked about the work she did with poor families when she was studying psychology and social work in college. Her primary role was as a stay-at-home mom while we were growing up, although she helped my father run his business, as well. When we were older, she took a job as a retail clerk at Macy’s.
I was glad when they both eventually retired from years of physically demanding jobs.
Finally, I thought, they can relax. Sleep in, travel, garden, hang out with their grandkids.
That wasn’t exactly what happened.
After several years at home, my father applied to become a substitute teacher at a school district about 45 minutes away. He was 70 years old.
“I just wanted to get busy,” he said. Nearly 80 percent of the students in the district are economically disadvantaged. He’s been subbing there full-time for four years now, and the students know him.
“Patience and listening are the two things you have to have to be a good teacher,” he said. “And a sense of humor really helps you a lot.”
He said he gets as much out of the interaction with students as they do. Some call him “abuelo,” grandfather in Spanish, and bring small gifts for him.
“Having this kind of connection with people at my age is a big thing,” he tells me.
Meanwhile, my mother spent a couple of months in traditional retirement. She started volunteering to help refugee families get resettled in their new lives in Houston. She would drive into poor neighborhoods, find out what they needed and take young mothers and their children under her wing.
They call her Mama.
Within a year, she had started her own nonprofit, Mama’s Charity, which she uses to fund the medical, legal and educational needs of the communities she serves. She is busier than ever. Most of the texts I get from her are about the families she’s helping.
My parents are hardly alone in discovering their encore careers. A recent Pew Research Center analysis of federal employment data shows how retirement has evolved. In May 2000, 12.8 percent of those older than 65 held a job. By May of 2016, the number had climbed to 18.8 percent. In the past 16 years, employment rose among 65- to 69-year-olds: Close to a third now work. Among those 70 to 74, about a fifth work, and in the 75-plus population, the proportion is up to 8.4 percent from 5.4 percent.
Part of this trend is fueled by economic need, but another part is meeting the social and emotional needs of people as they age. After parents have raised their children, they are not needed in the same way at home. And after retiring from their jobs, they can feel even more adrift.
Humans need a purpose and a way to connect with others. Busy people are happy people.
These encore careers may not be the ones you do just for the money. It’s a chance to reclaim dreams.
In their late 60s and mid-70s, my parents are finally what they wanted to be when they grew up.