Baby Boomers Up For Change

Dreams of a more satisfying life helped spur Dale Vnuk to choose a new career after more than a quarter-century in the same line of work.

So did the constant grousing of co-workers who had soured on the job. Now Vnuk is in the process of retiring early and switching from airline mechanic to water garden builder.

"At 47, it's either time to do something or sit there and be miserable," said Vnuk, who opened a water garden store this year with his wife Marcia in suburban Fox Lake, Ill. "It's just a great burst of inspiration to see that you can still do something and change your life around."

Americans' dreams of early retirement, interrupted by the 2000 stock market bust and the 2001 recession, live on. They have been revived in part by the economy's rebound, soaring home values and the ambitions of baby boomers — although often accompanied nowadays by the realization they'll still need additional income.

A Merrill Lynch survey last year found that 77 percent of more than 3,400 baby boomers polled planned to work in some capacity in their retirement, with second careers in the mix for some, including 13 percent who intended to start their own businesses.

Barbara Harris launched a new career as a fashion designer in her mid-50s with the aid of an early retirement package from her years as a corporate manager with General Electric and elsewhere.

Pursuing a long-held ambition, she filled a notebook with sketches, spent four months traveling around to contract houses that could make the pieces and started her business in Connecticut.

Today, she runs the growing operation out of New York's Garment District, drawing on ideas from her corporate background in designing the elegant, upscale clothing line called Multi by Bree.

"To be able to take these ideas from your head to a paper to a garment, and to see that garment sell in the marketplace, is absolutely exhilarating," Harris said.

The downside of the new career: "If you're not careful, this turns into real work," she said with a laugh. Having to deal with business matters can temper the exhilaration somewhat.

Nonetheless, being able to live out a dream she first had as a girl has brought tremendous satisfaction.

"You hear those kinds of conversations all the time &3151 'Gee, I always had an interest but I never did anything about it."'

Jane Paradowski, who retired at age 52 after 31 years in California in city planning and human resources, moved back to her native Monroe, Wis., to work as a clinical psychologist. She got a Ph.D. and went back to work full-time — in part because her stock returns weren't keeping pace with her retirement ambitions.

In the span of two weekends she went from dinner at Spago's in Beverly Hills one weekend to a $5.50 fish fry at a VFW in rural Wisconsin featuring a one-man accordion band.


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