NEW YORK (AP) -- After 15 years as a corporate executive, Jennifer Gold Bennett wants a new challenge. Maybe she could run a golf club. Or, as an art collector, open her own shop.
But she's not sure she's ready to give up a six-figure salary.
''I hate to give up these high-earning years,'' said Bennett, 41.
After devoting their adult lives to their careers, many of America's 76 million Baby Boomers are grappling with their next move. Some are considering switching jobs to do something more enjoyable, even if the paycheck is smaller. Others have early retirement in mind.
No matter the decision, there's a lot at stake for Boomers who are near or who have hit their peak earning years. They could lose a lot of money, and hurt their retirement nest eggs if they make a big change now.
Bennett, a former senior vice president with American Express Financial Services, took a buyout offer April 1, and discovered she has a knack for interior decorating and gardening. That's made her think about turning one of her hobbies into her next job.
''I just don't know if I can make a living doing it,'' said Bennett, of Basking Ridge, N.J.
Many Boomers want to have some fun with the money they've earned, especially after having watched their parents work hard -- perhaps harder -- to save.
Brian Haney, who quit his engineering job last year, said, ''This had always been the long-term plan -- to get out early and enjoy life a bit.''
Haney, 37, and his partner, Charlie Buscemi, 39 and also an engineer, knew they'd give up working day after day sooner rather than later -- as students at MIT, they had talked of kicking back in their 30s. The couple left their jobs in San Francisco in April 2000, took a cross-country trip and then headed for a beach condo in Kona, Hawaii.
''We both love to travel, and have enjoyed not being limited to a few weeks a year,'' Haney said.
But their desire for relaxation at a young age required planning and saving. Boomers must have a plan when deciding when to retire or whether to switch careers, said Mathew Greenwald, whose Washington marketing firm has done 11 national retirement surveys.
''I don't think people realize how expensive it is to be retired,'' said Greenwald, head of Mathew Greenwald & Associates.
''A lot of people underestimate what they need. They don't understand inflation over the long term,'' he said, explaining that an annual inflation rate of 3.5 percent will cut a savings account in half in 20 years.
Working into retirement can help with finances, Greenwald said, but he cautioned Boomers to be realistic in factoring additional income into their retirement years.
While 61 percent of Americans expect to earn some money in retirement, he said, only 25 percent do. Many retirees don't find jobs that they find interesting or that pay them well enough to give up some of their newfound free time, Greenwald said.
Haney and Buscemi still work, consulting on engineering projects when they aren't snorkeling, grilling or learning to play chess.
''That will provide some cushion,'' Haney said.
Many other Boomers are still putting their plans together. Career experts say these folks should start by making a list of their strengths and what they like to do.
''Define what you want to do and what you do well and identify companies that would give you that opportunity,'' said Richard Bayer, chief operating officer of The Five O'Clock Club, a national career counseling organization based in New York.
That's tougher than it sounds, Bennett said. While she's learned that she loves decorating her house, ''would I really want to do that for other people?'' she said.
At least she's on the right track, asking the right questions, said Dorothy Cantor, a writer and psychologist in Westfield, N.J.
Cantor, who wrote, ''What Do You Want to Do When You Grow Up?'' (Little, Brown & Co., 2000), suggests Boomers ask themselves if they want to retire and when and why. Their answers could affect the job they choose next.
Some Boomers might decide to keep working in a well-paid profession so they can have a nice, long retirement. But a traditional retirement of no work and all play might not be good for some Boomers, who might want to keep working but at a job that's more fun.
''We are going to have a whole generation that is healthy, wealthy and bored. What are they going to do with the rest of their lives if the rest of their lives are 25 or 30 years?'' Cantor said.
''Some people will say they will play golf or do something else they didn't have time for before,'' she said.
''But for most people, unless they are Tiger Woods, playing golf every day gets pretty old, pretty quickly.''
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