How might a mid-career job change work out for you?

David Melendez is a 52-year-old product designer and marketer who lives in San Diego. His first career -- designing plush toys and other products for major companies -- spanned 25 years. He spent a lot of that time commuting to China on extended visits to have those products manufactured.

But now Melendez is experiencing a lifestyle change. The farthest he travels is to Florida twice a year. He buys houses, often found through the internet, then rehabs and rents or sells them. His income may be less, but his lifestyle is more rewarding: He works with his wife, Teresa, to paint and repair the fixer-uppers, and when these “hidden gems” double in value, the profit goes entirely to them.

“This is a lot more personally enjoyable,” he said.

Melendez is part of a class of job jumpers: the over-50s who get more joy out of life in their second career and -- because of that -- will probably stay employed a lot longer, according to a recent study by the Center for Retirement Research (CRR) at Boston College. His career path is the opposite of most tenured workers, such as civil servants, who will likely stay in their current jobs, happy or not, wait for their retirement send-off and then bow out early and collect Social Security.

So which path is better? That all depends on health and financial circumstances, the CRR said. For someone with a bad back, staying put and retiring early might be the better option. The same holds true for someone in a secure job who worries about a possible layoff if he or she changes careers too late in life.

And for some, the choice isn’t up to them. They may need more money for a safe retirement, may have a hefty mortgage or still fund children in college. 

The number of people who changed jobs at age 50 or later rose from 35 to 52 percent between 1983 and 2004, before experiencing a “modest decline” shortly before and during the last recession in 2008 when jobs grew scarce. The current job boom, where unemployment has dipped below 5 percent, could likely reverse that trend again.

The CRR tested its findings against metrics such as “blue collar versus some college” and found that job changers tended to be more educated, have fewer chronic health conditions (probably indicating less physically stressful jobs) and planned to stay in the job force longer. They were about 11 percentage points more likely to be still employed at age 65.

Those who didn’t switch jobs were more likely to have better health care plans through their employer, greater tenure and traditional defined-benefit pension plans, which offered higher -- and more secure -- benefits for longer time in the same job.

But job changing helped both blue-collar and college-educated workers stay in the job force longer and improved the retirement prospects for those who did, according to the study.

For former New York City journalist Sandy Gonzalez-Wilson, the choice was obvious. “I was working 14 hours a day on a regular basis, with no down time over the weekends,” she said. “Family life was starting to suffer.”

“So at 56, right before the crash in 2008, I left,” she said. Her timing was based partly on an economist who said, “I was getting out at the right time because after an economic downturn, a large number of people were going to be laid off, and all of them were going to have to reinvent themselves to survive.”

Gonzalez-Wilson did reinvent herself. She held a variety of jobs, including volunteering as president of her synagogue, where she learned about budgets and grant writing. She also took a paying job at a nonprofit. She discovered that she liked being an administrator more than a journalist, and she’s now a full-time temple administrator and likely to stay there a few more years.

The CRR survey ended when workers turned 65. At that point only 44 percent of the people in the study were still in the labor force. Apparently, nobody wants to work forever.

  • Ed Leefeldt

    Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.