Three Canadians made good on their desire to give back after retirement. Here, their stories and tips on how to become a humanitarian.
When Nancy Semkin began planning her early retirement from the corporate sector in 2009, she knew the next phase of her life was going to look markedly different. Semkin, who lives in Toronto, had enjoyed a long, fulfilling career as a director of leadership development in human resources at RBC.
“I have no regrets,” says Semkin. “But there was a further need I knew was not being met.”
For years, Semkin had pictured herself immersed in humanitarian work. With family obligations and bills to pay, however, the circumstances were never right. As she got older, that changed. Plus, “I had come to the time in my life when I wanted to take on a different kind of challenge,” Semkin says. “I’d had the dream to do humanitarian work for a long time and felt compelled to act when the circumstances were finally right.”
Semkin completed some college courses in international development and began searching for a suitable fit. “I knew I had transferable skills,” she says. At a recruiting night hosted by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Canada, she learned the extent to which organizations like this one need non-medical people – including logisticians, financial experts and, happily, human resources specialists.
To date, Semkin, now 67, has been on international staff development missions for MSF in a range of countries that include South Africa, Mozambique, South Sudan, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. “I’ve made connections with the most beautiful people from all over the world,” she says.
What brings her joy? “Their desire and eagerness to learn, and my having the skills to be able to help with that learning.”
What pulls people toward humanitarian work in the second half of life? After all, working in crisis situations, often under extreme conditions, is no pleasure cruise. Certainly there’s acute need, whether it’s in refugee camps, war-torn villages or disaster areas abroad, or in communities stricken with poverty or devastated by forest fires here at home. But the days are long and exhausting and don’t always include running water and electricity, let alone air-conditioning or a hot bath.
Yet a remarkable amount of humanitarian aid is delivered by older people. Many of them, like Semkin, never performed this kind of work until their 50s or 60s. At MSF, the average age of an international aid worker is 41, and it’s not unusual for workers to be seniors. “That might surprise people,” says Owen Campbell, MSF Canada’s field human resources manager. “We don’t have any top age limit. We look for people who have recent, relevant work experience, and of course, if someone has a lifetime of experience, that’s taken into consideration.”
Campbell notes that older people tend to have fewer competing commitments and more time to give. They’re retired or semi-retired, their families are grown, and their elderly parents have long since passed away. Statistics Canada reports that seniors who volunteer for charitable causes give much more time than any other age group; in fact, they contribute nearly twice as many hours as adults under 35.
These men and women may be better positioned financially as well, especially if they’ve risen in their careers and are no longer paying off their house or their kids’ university fees. “I had a pension, and my mortgage was done, so I didn’t have to worry about looking for work that paid the bills,” Semkin says. Although she, like other MSF workers, receives a monthly stipend (not all humanitarian work is volunteer work), it certainly doesn’t compare to a corporate executive’s salary.
But the motivation to do hands-on humanitarian work, especially when there are many other, easier options for making a charitable contribution to society, often goes beyond pragmatic matters of spare time and financial stability. German-born American psychoanalyst Erik Erikson coined the term “generativity” to describe the wish to contribute as a legacy for younger generations.