Monday, March 25, 2002

Job burnout drives some boomers to new careers

By Dave Carpenter
The Associated Press

        CHICAGO — Deep into the rat race but far from the finish line of retirement, many baby boomers are at risk of hitting the career wall. Instead of toughing it out, some have joined different races — changing their goals and their jobs. Survivors of burnout, their experiences might inspire fellow boomers who fantasize about walking away from high-powered jobs to find greater fulfillment.

        Among the more unorthodox success stories, Jamie Sims went from urban mortgage broker to crawfish farmer in rural Arkansas. And Dr. John Mullen, veteran Dallas neurosurgeon, became a sheriff's deputy and emergency room physician.

        While such unlikely leaps might not be for everyone, the 54-year-old Dr. Mullen sees career adjustments as likelier in the wake of the stock market's swoon and the terrorist attacks.

        “I think people have come to the realization that money is not the end-all,” said Dr. Mullen, who, like Ms. Sims, made his career switch back in the '90s.

        Ms. Sims, 41, burned out early. After majoring in business at Louisiana State University and becoming a mortgage broker in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., she felt trapped by the time she hit her early 30s, weighed down by fatigue, frustration, stress, even road rage.

        “I worked day and night. I was on call 24 hours a day. There was never vacation time because if I took off, someone else would try to take my area,” she said. “I didn't like it any more.”

        So she ditched her job and her husband and moved back to Harrisburg, Ark., where her parents sold crawfish that they brought back from trips to Louisiana. Soon she owned and ran P&J Fish Co. with her mother, Pat, a former real estate appraiser.

        “I went from high heels to hip boots,” she said. “If that's not a transition, I don't know what is.”

        It still requires a seven-day work week, at least from January to July, and her income is a third what it was. But Jamie has found her calling. She and her mom sell a half-million pounds of crawfish a year, raised from 30 acres of ponds, and her financial burden is eased by a low cost of living in an area where she says $50,000 still buys a nice house.

        “I wouldn't go back for any amount of money,” she said.

        Too many of the nation's 76 million boomers, now ages 37 to 56, have given up seeking that kind of satisfaction, according to Atlanta consultant Jim Bird, citing millionaire clients who are unhappy with their situations.

        “Boomers are so caught up in the "as soon as' trap — "as soon as my kids get through college,' "as soon as I get this or that taken care of' — that we're putting off the everyday enjoyment of life,” said Mr. Bird, president of the firm “The solution to burnout is to realize we're very caught up in achieving, and we should try to enjoy something at work every day.”

        Dr. Mullen does that now, at several jobs. Bored and burned out after 20 years as a neurosurgeon, he left his thriving medical practice in search of a new direction.

        “It was a 24/7 job and it just got old,” he said. “When you hate to get up in the morning and do something you loved to do, that's burnout. I just got tired of it.”

        But not tired overall. Dr. Mullen believes in second careers, and third and fourth and fifth. While working regular shifts in a hospital ER he pursued a love of law enforcement by working as an unpaid sheriff's deputy for Franklin County north of Dallas on his days off. He does forensic consulting for police departments in homicide investigations, teaches at a police academy and serves on a special forces team in the Army reserves.

        Asked what advice he would give fellow burned-out boomers, Dr. Mullen, preparing to start a 12-hour overnight shift in the emergency room, didn't hesitate. “Do what you enjoy — the hell with the money.”

        Frank Shipper, professor of management at Salisbury University in Maryland, says many baby boomers are feeling squeezed by age and economic pressures that have suddenly shrunk their options for advancement.

        “The option that some people are choosing is to get out of the corporate or structured life and into more entrepreneurial things,” he said. “Whether it's getting into a bed and breakfast or starting a business on their own, people are starting nontraditional careers.


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