October 25, 2020

Preoccupations: Retired, but Doing the Work You Love

I NEVER planned on retiring early. I was deputy chief of operations for the Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles, and I felt I was doing important work. The agency enters communities where residents suffer from high levels of unemployment, overcrowding and crime. It acquires and demolishes unsafe buildings; finances, builds and rehabilitates housing; brings in commercial services like supermarkets; and provides jobs for local residents. I wasn’t prepared to walk away from that career.

The C.R.A. is financed by a share of property taxes from the communities in which it works, and tax revenues declined significantly because of the recession. Last year, the agency announced that it was reducing head count by 20 percent.

Retirement packages were offered according to people’s age and how long they had worked there. At 66, with 28 years in, I qualified. I would also receive my pension, and I had saved over the years.

The proposals to retire early were extremely generous, and if enough people didn’t take the offer, the agency was going to lay people off. I was fairly sure I wouldn’t be in that group if I stayed, but I didn’t want to take a chance.

I retired in December, but I wasn’t happy about it. I had planned to work longer. If you don’t like your job or are tired of working, it’s one thing. But if you’re passionate about what you do, the thought of leaving can be upsetting even if it makes the best sense financially. I talked with management about returning as a consultant, but I wasn’t offered anything definite before the retirement date.

As soon as I left, I started investigating other kinds of work. I developed a syllabus for a graduate class on urban planning and economic development that I might offer to a local university, and I looked into volunteering.

People facing retirement are dealing with a big life change. It’s helpful to have time before you retire to think about the future and what you will do. I found the decision difficult because I didn’t have that time.

About three weeks after I retired, the C.R.A. chief executive called and offered me a contract to return as a consultant for a year. Just over 40 employees had left the organization in December, and there hadn’t been enough time to train people in their new duties. The people who are left are highly skilled, but they don’t have the knowledge or the contacts in other departments and agencies that many of the retirees do. I’m helping to reorganize the remaining staff and to record the organization’s procedures for those who remain.

There are undoubtedly other organizations like mine that found it necessary to reduce head count but didn’t have time for a knowledge transfer. I doubt it’s intentional; I think time gets away from them.

Employees look at me differently since I’ve returned. For one thing, I can’t give directions to staff anymore. I still review documents that require approval from the agency’s board of commissioners, the city council or other city staff, just as I used to do. I ensure that they’re properly written so that they clearly and accurately reflect the agency’s intent and are legally and operationally sound. When I was on staff, I could just tell people what changes to make. Now I have to say, “Here are some suggestions about how this could be a better memo.”

Initially I had some trepidation about how I would feel returning to the organization in this capacity, and even after I started I wasn’t sure how I felt. But now that some time has passed, I like the freedom and the flexibility more than I thought I might.

I work 15 to 20 hours a week and can largely decide my own schedule. I’ve begun volunteering with the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation, an organization I helped create in 2009. I’m also talking to a community group that deals with environmental justice in Los Angeles about working with them either as a volunteer or a paid consultant.

IF I could return full time to my staff job, at this point I’m not sure I would. I’d have to think about it. I ended up having the best of both worlds — I can work part time at a job that helps the community and do similar work as a volunteer in my free time. That was my primary concern about leaving — whether I would be able to continue doing this type of work outside this agency.

The way it has worked out goes to show that you shouldn’t look at change as necessarily negative. You may find opportunities you weren’t expecting.

I don’t know what will happen when my contract is finished. I’d love to have another contract with the agency and to continue with my outside activities. The worst case would be to have neither. If I couldn’t be of service to communities, I’d feel I was left out in the cold.

As told to Patricia R. Olsen.
E-mail: preoccupations@nytimes.com.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=391d0d7a447d27b9c27ebe5bb612c2c7

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