Gray Basnight, now 59, vividly recalls the day three years ago when, as part of a massive layoff, he lost his job of 14 years as a Bloomberg business radio reporter. Right next to him, a single mother who had just been handed her notice wept uncontrollably — she had only weeks earlier bought a home and committed to a mortgage. “I thought they were going to have to bring in psychological help for her,” Basnight recalled, “It was an awful time.”
And yet his reaction to his own situation was out-of-sync with the grief that surrounded him. Yes, his job was ending, but he also saw a chance to pursue a dream of becoming a published novelist. “[My wife and I] had often talked about my taking a work sabbatical to finish the novel but didn’t welcome the idea of cutting our income or losing what was then good health insurance coverage for such a long shot,” he said. The layoff meant he would be able to work eight hours a day on the Civil War novel he had been trying to write for years on weekends.
Launching an encore career can be a difficult proposition, according to a MetLife Foundation and Civic Ventures survey of 2,500 people who made the leap. Respondents said it took an average of 18 months to make the transition, and more than two in three experienced gaps in personal income during the process.
Kerry Hannon, personal finance writer and author of the new book “Great Jobs for Everyone 50+,” says there are two key elements to consider before you bail out of the salaried workforce to fly solo: the shape of your finances and your tolerance for risk.
Instead of tapping retirement savings to fund your venture, make sure you have a year’s worth of savings to cover your household and professional expenses, Hannon advises. Take a close look at your other obligations, such as a mortgage or college expenses for the kids, and how you’ll pay for health insurance. Basnight was fortunate that he not only owned his home, he had a wife with a full-time job, with a health policy that would cover him. He also had few financial responsibilities — no children, no aging parents for whom he was financially responsible — and his severance package would carry him for a year or more.
Hannon also suggests looking for ways to downsize your lifestyle –- a necessity if you anticipate zero income for a period of time. One-quarter of those surveyed by Civic Ventures and MetLife said they earned no money during their career transition. Nearly four in five of those respondents experienced a gap of six months or more; 36 percent said their income gap lasted more than two years.