CU-Denver launches program aimed at attracting older professionals

The University of Colorado-Denver is part of a growing trend of universities focused not just on people starting their careers but those looking to make changes after decades of work.

The school will start its Change Markers program in January, a semester-long course aimed at people who have just retired or are thinking about it. The goal is to provide a framework for people to make life and career transitions, said Anne Button, the program’s director.

“Universities traditionally help people find their purposes at the beginning of their careers, but why not also at the end of their primary careers as they transition into what’s next?” asked Button.

More universities are launching similar programs as the U.S. population gets older and people live longer. The 2020 Census showed the U.S. population grew 7.4% since 2010, the slowest rate since the 1930s.

Although Colorado is the sixth-youngest state, it’s experiencing the fourth-fastest growth rate in people over 65, according to the Colorado Demography Office. The age group 75 to 84 is expected to increase 68% and the group 65 to 74 is forecast to grow 19% by 2030. By contrast, the growth rate for 25- to 54-year-olds is predicted to be 15% and 5% for 16- to 24-year-olds.

A recent Forbes story referred to the projected shrinking group of younger Americans as a “demographic cliff” for universities: fewer young people entering college. Economist Nathan Grawe at Carleton College in Minnesota predicts that enrollment will drop by 15% between 2025 and 2029 and continue to decline by another percentage point or two.

“Universities are looking at who is in our area and who do we need to serve,” Button said. “As we look at the population in Colorado specifically and in Denver, it’s getting older and more diverse.”

CU-Denver recently completed a strategic plan that includes the goal of being a university for life, Button said. The Change Makers program aligns with that strategy. A group of 15 to 20 people will meet two evenings a week. Lori Zahn, a certified executive coach, will lead group discussions and a series of seminars exploring wellness, traditional and non-traditional work and other pursuits.

Participants will be able to audit classes and attend lectures, gallery openings and performances. The tuition is $3,200. Button said the program is pursuing funding for scholarships.

The university is still taking applications for Change Makers, which runs Jan. 10 to April 25.

Button said while people often have ideas about how to spend their later working years or retirement, they might not know how to follow through on them.

“The idea is to have a framework for really valuing what you’ve done, the wisdom of your experience and using that to discern what you want to do and figure out how you’re going to go about doing it,” Button said.

There are also implications for the larger community, she said. “There’s this huge untapped resource in our collective acquired skills and wisdom. If we just retire and go off to leisure world, that is a big waste and our community has so many needs.”

“You can only golf so much”

After years of working in Colorado politics and communications, consultant Ellen Dumm is open to new ideas and experiences as she contemplates what she wants to do next. She signed up for Change Makers after deciding it is the kind of program she had been looking for.

“I like the fact that this incorporates health and wellness, community involvement and giving you options to pick from rather than a one-size-fits-alll,” Dumm said. “And it incorporates some unusual stuff, like creativity and art.”

Dumm is looking forward to the group discussions and meeting new people with different backgrounds and experiences. She learned during the pandemic that she needs to be part of a bigger community.  She wants to be “mindful and thoughtful” about future plans.

“You don’t just flip a switch and say ‘I’m not going to work anymore.’ There are all kinds of implications for your health, your mindset,” said Dumm.

And people who have spent years working and building a career have plenty to offer, she added. “I might not be the youngest person on the block or the most active, but what I do have is depth and probably a little more context because I’ve been around so long.”

Dumm likes that Change Makers is intended to help individuals plan their next moves while also looking at how tapping their wisdom and experience can benefit the community.

“I want to get up in the morning with a sense of meaning and purpose and contribute to the greater good,” Dumm said. “You can only golf so much.”

A springboard to the next phase

Stanford University offers a yearlong fellowship for midlife professionals through its Distinguished Careers Institute. The program launched in 2015 and has approximately 350 alumni from around the world.

Katherine Connor, the institute’s executive director, said the program’s objectives are renewing purpose; building community and recalibrating wellness. As people live longer lives, Connor said, a goal is to provide “a springboard to contribute in their next phase of life.”

“For most people, myself included, thinking of retirement at 65 seems crazy,” Connor said. “We’ve got a lot of energy and interest in staying involved and engaged, but may not want the same kind of career that we’ve had for the first part of our career.”

Participants can take university classes in specific fields. Each fellow has an advisor to help chart an academic pathway. Other features are memoir writing, community events, discussions, opportunities to work with students in research and service projects and wellness classes.

“The program is not necessarily for a career transition. It’s not like a certificate program for skills,” Connor said. “It’s a more broad way of thinking about retirement and if you don’t want to retire, how might you create a portfolio of things that you want to do.”

Program fellows have become published authors, started new companies or supported startups. A longtime corporate lawyer is teaching math in middle and high school.

“We have one woman who is feeding seaweed to cows in Hawaii to reduce methane emissions,” Connor said.

Attending the institute led to a new career for Connor. She ran the career development office at the Leeds School of Business at CU-Boulder before participating in Stanford’s program. She became the program’s executive director in July 2020.

Connor said she is glad to see CU-Denver launch its own program and believes it is well-positioned to succeed given the area’s strong economy and growing high-tech industry.

“How do we reframe how people think about this generation because the truth is this is the generation that’s growing and it’s the younger generation that’s shrinking,” Connor said, “and that’s an issue for universities and it’s an issue for companies.”

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