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How to find work you enjoy in retirement

(MoneyWatch) When it comes to working during your retirement, many articles focus on the mechanics of job-hunting for older workers, and that is indeed a valuable exercise. But before running off to find a job, you should take the time to ask yourself just exactly what you should be hunting for. Welcome back to another post exploring working in your retirement years, part of my 16-week series, "Planning Your Retirement."

So how can you find work that offers satisfaction instead of frustration? I asked this question of John Nelson, author of "What Color Is Your Parachute -- for Retirement?" and he had some interesting advice to offer.

Nelson's first suggestion was to reengage with your personal history. Assess your special skills, knowledge or contacts that can translate into a new opportunity in your field. He gave the example of a classroom teacher he knew who retired to become a tutor. She capitalized on her experience and contacts as a teacher, and she now has some extra income to supplement her financial resources without the commitment of a full-time job.

Nelson's next suggestion was to start either fresh or lower on the totem pole in a new area of interest. Just like people in their 20s, people in their 60s might be able to afford to take some risks because they have fewer monetary commitments than people in their 30s to 50s. For instance, those over 60 most likely don't have dependent children, they may have a savings cushion on hand and they have a lifetime of experience to draw upon to help them find a new career. Nelson suggests that you assess your interests and determine the skills that you most like to use, then look for an organization that supports your values and a group of people whom you actually want to spend time with.

You can also get clues about the type of work you'd enjoy during retirement from how you feel about your current job. Helen Dennis, who taught and researched for many years at USC's Andrus Gerontology Center and is the co-author of Project Renewment: The First Retirement Model for Career Women, suggests you ask yourself just what has kept you at your current job for so long. This is a question she often asks her retirement planning workshop participants, and typical answers include:

  • Stimulating intellectual environment
  • Working in a collegial atmosphere with interesting people
  • A feeling of respect
  • The sense that you're helping people and society in general
  • Good pay and benefits
  • Doing what you're good at -- using your skills and experience in a productive way

"Use your work experience as a guide to the future," Dennis counsels. "People don't change that much. If that's what you like at work now, then look for these characteristics in a retirement job."

Occasionally one of Dennis's workshop participants will ask, "If we have these features at our current job, why retire?" I couldn't have put it better myself. The thing is, there's no need to give in to cultural expectations to retire if you like your current work.

But there may come a time when your job no longer fits your lifestyle or needs, and you find yourself seeking other work. In that case, following Dennis's advice is a smart move. First, she says, make a list of the features you like about your current job or career. Then look for these features in a retirement job.

Of course, life isn't always black and white; with many jobs, there are features you like and dislike. So I'd add to Dennis's advice: Also make a list of the features you don't like about your current job. Then, when you're looking for retirement work, try to avoid those features.

One other thing I'd suggest is that you try going through this exercise now, while you're still employed, and see how your current job stacks up. If the pros outweigh the cons, you might try reducing or eliminating the things you don't like so you can keep doing this work for as long as possible. For most people who work during their retirement years, that usually means reducing the number of hours you work. It could also mean reducing your management responsibilities and seeking out just the tasks that you like and are good at.

Planning enjoyable work in your retirement years may take some work, but the rewards will be worth the effort.

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