SINCE Dane Peters retired three years ago as head of school at Brooklyn Heights Montessori School in Brooklyn, he has fused a life of consulting, volunteering and leisure time. “It’s my trifecta,” he said. “Paid work, giving back and relaxation. I call it ‘consulteering.’”
Like Mr. Peters, who is 68, a growing number of retirees are seeking a similar equilibrium. “My hunch is that we’ll be seeing more of ‘consulteering,’” said Dorian Mintzer, a retirement transition coach. “It’s a great way to fit work into life rather than trying to squeeze time for life into your work schedule.”
Ms. Mintzer’s clients, she said, are “intentional in figuring out what’s next — realizing they benefit from some work structure and want to build social connection, mental engagement and meaning into their life.”
Even after stepping away from a full-time job, for many “retirees,” work is still their primary identity. “It’s an important part of how they define themselves, and they don’t want to totally give it up,” Ms. Mintzer said. “But they want to create their own hours and have time for other things that matter to them.”
The interest in consulteering — a word Mr. Peters said he thought up on his own — is one sign among many that traditional retirement no longer satisfies as many older people as it once did. A recent study from the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that fewer older Americans say they’re having a great time during retirement.
Based on a 15-year period of data from the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study, the most comprehensive national survey of older Americans, the share of people reporting “very satisfying” retirements dropped significantly from just over 60 percent in 1998 to under 49 percent in 2012.
Staving off retirement blues takes preparation. The first step for Mr. Peters and his wife, Chris, a retired teacher, was to move closer to family. They relocated to Greenland, N.H., to live near their son and daughter-in-law and their two young granddaughters, ages 3 and 5.
It wasn’t a rash move. They rented for a year. “We wanted to get a lay of the land and not disrupt our son and his family’s life, and at the same time find a place we could afford,” Mr. Peters said.
Consulting allowed him to look for work from his new home. “I did not want to stop working altogether for my own sense of self, and I wanted to stay in the game and support independent schools with my expertise in leadership and governance,” he said. “Yet, I didn’t want to keep up the pace of a 70-hour workweek.”
To test the waters, he accepted weekend consulting assignments before retiring. “There was a demand, so now I pick and choose when I work — generally one job a month,” he said.
After moving to Greenland, Mr. and Mrs. Peters began volunteering together for an acting troupe called Senior Moments, a nonprofit performance group. The group writes its own plays and short skits, and performs them throughout New Hampshire at senior centers. “My wife and I are the young kids in the group,” Mr. Peters said. “The guy who runs it is 84.”
To further engage in their interest in theater, they usher at a local music hall and the Seacoast Repertory Theater, and sell concessions. “I make a lot of popcorn,” Mr. Peters said.
He also serves as a board member at a handful of small nonprofits.
The third leg of the stool is family and leisure. Dane and Chris Peters care for their granddaughters two days a week before and after school. This year, they have already traveled to San Miguel, Mexico, and have booked an Alaskan cruise and a biking and barge tour in France.
To keep in shape for all of these activities, Mr. Peters says he typically cycles nine miles a day. “Fitness is a big piece of retirement for me.”
What it all comes down to is “balancing a life of leisure with a life of purpose,” Mr. Peters said. “The biggest challenge is time management. The management comes in how many gigs I will take on and how much volunteering we can realistically do.”
Similarly, Ann Seltz, 66, who lives in Rockville, Md., keeps a tight rein on her paid work in retirement, limiting it to an average of 25 hours a week, so she has time for her volunteer work and other activities.
Ms. Seltz sings in a Sweet Adelines barbershop group that performs locally, competes regionally and includes a regular exercise program of yoga, walking and aqua fitness. “My mission is to keep moving and stay active mentally, so I don’t become some fat, old woman with a cane,” Ms. Seltz said. “You need to be intentional about taking care of yourself. You have to plan how you want to spend these years. You can’t just drift.”
But the transition took time. “I loved my last full-time job,” recalled Ms. Seltz, a former vice president of marketing. “It was a fast-moving, hard-charging media company covering the residential design and construction field, and there was always a new impossible challenge or revenue number to make.”
Then it all fell apart. Roughly six years ago, Ms. Seltz was let go — a circumstance faced by many older workers. “I was expensive upper management in a collapsing residential construction world,” she recalled. “I was laid off one day, given a pretty generous severance and sent on my way.”
A sizable 60 percent of retirees surveyed last year by the nonprofit Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies said they were pushed out of their jobs before age 65, largely for reasons out of their control, according to Catherine Collinson, president of T.C.R.S.
After bouncing around in a few short-term positions, Ms. Seltz decided to set up her own shingle, starting SeltzSolutions.com, a marketing-consulting practice. To land assignments, she tapped FlexProfessionals, an employment agency in Washington and Boston that matches experienced professionals with part-time employment. Her hourly rate was about a third of what it would have been for project management and marketing assignments at the top of her game, she figured.
For Ms. Seltz, lowering her wage bar wasn’t a stumbling block. “I’ve come to see work as something that funds my real passion — volunteering,” she said. “In fact, what kept me from falling into depression when my ‘real’ career blew up was my volunteer work.”
Not all retirees are willing to work for less than they feel they’re worth. That is often a mistake. “They have unrealistic expectations for pay and responsibility, especially for part-time positions,” said Gwenn Rosener, co-founder of FlexProfessionals.
“This stems from justified pride in their expertise, but it significantly limits the landscape of positions that can meet those expectations,” she said. Moreover, many semi-retirees “have a sense that the world is their oyster and that the second act is about pursuing a dream, or trying something new,” she said.
“Employers don’t want to be part of an experiment,” said Ms. Rosener, who explained that uncertainty does not fly well with employers who are looking for commitment and focus. “If you’re not certain what your second act is,” she said, “find ways to explore and test your ideas through volunteer work, job shadowing and classes before pursuing real employment.”
By KERRY HANNON