imagesWhen was the last time you were so passionate about your work that it didn’t seem like work at all? Or felt excited by all the new stuff you were learning on your job? And genuinely couldn’t wait to get up and head to the office because your bosses and colleagues were so much fun?

Joy Wanted: Find out how to talk to your boss about being happier on the job.

If it’s been a while, you’ve got company. A majority of American workers (nearly 53 percent) say they’re unsatisfied with their jobs, and only 15.4 percent pronounce themselves “very satisfied” in their work, according to a new report by the Conference Board, a business membership-and-research group that has been conducting surveys about worker happiness since 1987. Older employees have experienced the steepest drop in job satisfaction over the past 25 years: In 1987 more than 70 percent of workers 65 or older and nearly 60 percent of workers 55 through 64 felt good about their jobs; by 2011 both groups’ satisfaction numbers had tumbled to 46 percent.

This is the good news: You can fall in love with work again even if you’ve been in a job for decades. Talk with enough happy workers and you’ll find that being older doesn’t have to equal unhappiness. The secret, they say, is feeling in control: having a job that offers you a bigger say in what goes on at work, more flexibility in scheduling day-to-day activities, and more opportunities to pursue professional passions and develop new skills. Increased autonomy will frequently lead to increased satisfaction.

Many paths can lead you to this fulfillment. You can switch jobs, change fields and start anew, or you can discover ways to make old workplaces feel fresh. As the “very satisfied” workers you’ll meet here show, it’s never too late to make your job a source of joy as well as income.

(GO to AARP to read the Full story)

Strive to keep learning

Here’s a typical workday for Amy Reingold, 56, and Marilyn “Maz” Rauber, 59. They sit side by side at a long wooden desk in Rauber’s light-filled 14th-floor apartment in Silver Spring, Md., dreaming up story lines for Capital Girls, a series of young-adult novels published by St. Martin’s Griffin. Rauber types the scenes on her laptop; then they print them out, cut them into strips, reorder and paste them back together, and presto: a 70,000-word manuscript is born. Their first book came out in August, under the pseudonym Ella Monroe. The second book arrived in November, and the third will be on shelves in April.

“It’s been liberating, both personally and creatively,” says Rauber, who spent more than two decades as a newspaper reporter. “We check our egos at the door, and the hours fly by.”

For Reingold, a former professional chef and stay-at-home mom, writing a book was a long-postponed childhood dream. “I was scared to do it on my own,” she says. “I’d find excuses, like raising my two daughters. But after they headed off to college three years ago, there were no excuses left.”

To pull off this career metamorphosis, the partners developed many new job skills, from learning research online to navigating the quirky world of book publishing. To master young-adult argot, they read Seventeen, studied slang at and asked their kids to vet their work. “We needed to answer questions like ‘How much do they talk about sex?’ and ‘What kind of lingo do they use to describe a cute boy?’ ” says Reingold.

Once the first book was published, last summer, they had to learn how to market it via social media and build a website. “It was intimidating,” Rauber admits. “But I had to say, ‘OK, I can do this. I can’t avoid it. If I can write a book, I can figure out Twitter.’ ”

Next page: Challenge yourself to add skills and stretch yourself. »

Embrace your passion

Diane Crump was 4 years old when she rode a carnival pony in Milford, Ct. When that first walk around the dusty circle ended, she clung to the pony’s neck. “I can’t get off yet, Dad. Please — one more ride,” she pleaded.

He nodded, and Crump hasn’t stopped since. In 1969 she became a horse racing pioneer — the first female jockey to ride in a pari-mutuel (professional gambling) race in America. The following year she was the first woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby. But Crump wound up with physical wear and tear toward the end of her career as a jockey and trainer, and in 1999 she decided she was finished riding. “I loved my riding days,” says Crump, 64. “I gave all the horses I rode my heart, and they gave me theirs, but I knew I had to move on.”

She didn’t leave her passion behind entirely. With design help from her mom, Jean (who was then in her 70s), Crump launched a website offering her consulting services to prospective horse buyers. Her job: Inspect the animals firsthand to judge their appeal to various customers, then post photos and videos, plus other purchase information, on her site. Customers made appointments for her to show them horses, and gradually, sales began to build.

Turning a childhood passion into a lasting career can happen by applying your expertise in a new direction, as Crump did, or by better understanding what’s behind the things you love to do. “Your passion is a clue,” says Nicholas Lore, 68, who founded the Rockport Institute, a career-coaching firm. “To find a job you love, you need to become a career detective looking for the clues about the fit between yourself and the working world.”

The clues are easy to spot. They’re the activities that excite you, the stuff that matters in your life, the things you do easily and well. Lore, for instance, is passionate about sailing. “But I wouldn’t want to be a charter-boat skipper,” he says. What he discovered is that he likes constant problem solving, the kind you do when you’re sailing — or job coaching. “You need to put together a clues list.” Those clues should reveal the elements of your dream job, from which career ideas can blossom.

That’s what Alejandro Benes did, and at 57 the Cuban-born ex-newsman finds himself in the restaurant industry. He’s happier than ever, in part because he’s rediscovered something his old work once fed: his omnivorous appetite for new flavors and experiences. Since 2006, Benes has been a partner in Wood Ranch BBQ & Grill, a Southern California-based restaurant group that one of his cousins cofounded.

It’s a long way from the trenches of broadcast news, where Benes was once Latin America bureau chief for ABC. But he’s still using his communications skills — internally, with the company’s 1,000-plus employees, and externally, with the 40,000-plus customers the restaurants serve each week. The big difference: Now he gets to indulge his lifelong appreciation for good food and drink. As head of the company’s culinary development, Benes is Wood Ranch’s test-kitchen guru. He takes culinary-education courses, has a hand in creating new menu offerings and regularly dines at competitors’ establishments. “I travel around in hopes of finding inspiration from an excellent dish,” he says. “It’s hell, but someone has to do it.”

Changing Focus Didn’t Mean Downshifting

Werley followed this route herself seven years ago, jumping from her corporate job at JPMorgan Chase to the nonprofit world. Before joining The Transition Network, she became involved with the Financial Women’s Association, a nonprofit group for women in the financial- services industry. “As I was looking to change careers, I realized I had done a lot of work helping women and girls with their development. Now it’s my full-time job,” she says.

Herb Johnson, 60, has spent his professional life in the tire industry, logging 35 years at Michelin, where he was formerly director of the brand’s motorsports division. Now he’s director of community relations, responsible for making his longtime employer a better corporate citizen.

“I’m in the giving-back stage of my career,” says Johnson, who has reinvented his job without changing employers. A health crisis several years ago, when he was diagnosed with type-2 diabetes, led him to look closely at his professional life. “I realized there is a greater purpose for my being here.”

Johnson’s career is a world away from the place it was a few years ago, when he spent most of his time roaming international raceways, consulting with engineers and drivers, and talking to the press about Michelin tires. During Johnson’s tenure as head of the company’s racing program, Michelin-shod cars took first place at the 24-hour race in Le Mans, France, among numerous other victories, and he was immersed in the details of racing-tire compounds and tread designs.

Now the pace has slowed, and Johnson is more likely to be found lending a hand to build new homes with Habitat for Humanity. Or he may be meeting with elementary school administrators near his home in Greenville, S.C., about a program he spearheaded, the Michelin Challenge Education volunteer mentoring program, which enlists company employees and retirees to provide mentoring in math, science and reading at public schools near 14 Michelin facilities nationwide.

Changing focus didn’t mean downshifting to easier work. “Working with a race-car driver’s ego is a little different from working with a nonprofit,” he says. “The biggest problem now is finding the resources to make a difference. In racing it was about selling tires. This is about selling hope for the future of our children,” Johnson explains.

The most satisfying part of his new role? “Getting up every morning and knowing I have an opportunity to help some person who is less fortunate than me.”

Kerry Hannon is the author of the new AARP book Great Jobs For Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Healthy…and Pays the Bills (John Wiley & Sons).

Share Button