A survey released earlier this month provides clues to a question with major implications for the American economy and the lives of millions: What will 78 million baby boomers do as they continue to work into traditional retirement age? The question was explored recently with more than 3,500 people between the ages of 44 and 70.

The 2008 MetLife Foundation/Civic Ventures Encore Career Survey, conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, Inc., estimates that between 5.3 and 8.4 million Americans have already launched “encore careers,”” positions that combine income and personal meaning with social impact.

As promising as this finding is for individuals and society, the potential is even greater. Of those workers ages 44-70 not already in encore careers, half are interested in them, specifically jobs in education, health care and the nonprofit sector. And those respondents most interested in social purpose careers tend to be the youngest: 50 percent of boomers ages 44-50 say they want to join the 7 percent of their group already in such careers.

The report also includes recommendations on changes in workplace practices and public policies that could increase the number of people able to pursue and obtain encore careers.

Is the encore career a trend? “The millions of people now in encore careers constitute a new social phenomenon with promise for individuals and society,” said Allan Rivlin, a partner at Peter D. Hart Research Associates, Inc., and director of the report. “The tens of millions interested in joining them could add up to one of the most unexpected and significant consequences of an aging America.”

For copies of the MetLife Foundation/Civic Ventures Encore Career Survey, visit http://www.civicventures.org/surveys.cfm.