I’m 60 and out of the workforce: Can I ever go back?

by Marilyn Spotswood, Director, Lifelong Learning Center

Painting by LLC Instructor
Cecile Disenhouse

I had been ‘retired’ for about 15 years from software and research when a great opportunity presented itself. I felt like it would be a perfect fit with my interests and background, but I questioned whether I could do it, given my long absence from the workforce. My professional career was focused on building and implementing community based long-term care programs. I was even part of the crazy dot-com era in Seattle when investors were throwing money at start up companies run by young people like me who had no idea what we were doing. It was a fun and crazy time. But I was done. And I had a nice arrangement – I ‘retired’ to spend time with my kids while my husband toiled at his job. But a nagging question stayed with me – I had removed myself from the paid workforce for an extended period of time. Could I ever go back?

After ‘retiring,’ I began volunteering – first with my kids’ schools and then with a wonderful non-profit called North East Seattle Together (NEST). It was there that I gained the experience of being on a Board of Directors of a non-profit. When I became the Board President, I said to the other directors, “Thank you for appointing me as President, but I know nothing about this job.” But boy, did I learn – everything from strategic planning and budgeting to leadership development, ED recruitment and fundraising.

During this time, a fellow NEST board member came to me looking for recommendations for an open Executive Director position at the Lifetime Learning Center (LLC). LLC is a non-profit in NE Seattle that offers older adults classes, workshops, lectures and events in a variety of topics including history, music, arts, discussion groups, literature, writing, bridge, philosophy, exercise and much, much more. It’s been in existence for almost 50 years and has grown into a community of lifelong learners who come together to socialize, interact, engage and learn. My initial response to whether I knew of someone for the open Executive Director position was, “Yes, me!”

I knew about LLC because of some overlapping programs with NEST. But I also knew about LLC because I had been a student there. I was very impressed by the quality of the classes, the passion of the instructors and the enthusiasm and engagement of the students. In fact, I stayed up late at night with my yellow highlighter because there was no way I was attending class ill prepared. So, I jumped at the chance to lead this phenomenal organization.

But then I hesitated. I hadn’t been in the paid workforce for many years – could I do this? I was motivated to apply for many reasons. I was at the point in my life where I was carefully choosing how to spend my time. I would only commit to something of value to the community and to which I could make a contribution. This opportunity met all of those requirements, but I continued to ask myself whether I was qualified. I came to realize that these doubts are not unusual when returning to the workforce, especially among women. But what I’ve come to really appreciate is that, whether its intentional or not, we are always learning and acquiring knowledge.

I knew I had learned many new skills while volunteering as a Board member for NEST. This is sometimes referred to as ‘strategic volunteering’ or work that does more than just make you feel that you are giving something back.  And it can be very intentional or more organic – discovering a new interest or uncovering a previously hidden talent. In addition to building skills, I was building my network. At the same time, I was acquiring invaluable organizational skills as a stay-at-home mom. I’d become a master of multitasking: paying bills, shuttling kids to appointments, events and activities, shopping and preparing meals, and balancing the family.

When I interviewed for the job, it became evident how much I had learned during my ‘retirement’ because it was easy to answer the interview questions! Not only did I know how to run a non-profit, but (thanks to my kids) I could stay calm while managing diverse schedules. So here I am – the Director of the Lifetime Learning Center. I’ve reentered the paid work force at the age of 60, and on my own terms. I now lead an organization that I value tremendously. It’s a perfect match with my mindset and skills. My self-doubt was natural, but unnecessary. I have a much better appreciation of the fact that we are always learning, whether it’s in a structured environment, a classroom, through volunteer work or at home managing our families.

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