For some in Sonoma County, pandemic prompted early retirement
Pamela Bernier, who ran West County Realty, decided to wind down her real estate brokerage and retire early at age 58 in May 2020.
After 20 years of selling Sonoma County houses, the coronavirus pandemic turned that process upside down and sparked a homebuying frenzy that she quickly realized made her profession no longer appealing.
“I felt badly for my clients,” Bernier said. “I couldn’t provide either the level of service or the detail needed to feel comfortable selling” properties typically listed in Occidental, Sebastopol and Bodega Bay at $1 million or more.
Martha Menth of Windsor abruptly walked away from 32 years of teaching at Kawana Springs Elementary School in south Santa Rosa in August 2020 at age 59.
For the bulk of those years she taught sixth grade. She had been preparing her virtual classroom for the 2020-2021 school year, but could no longer bear the frustration and fear former President Donald Trump caused her with his rhetoric urging all public schools to reopen classrooms while the dreaded infectious disease was sweeping the nation.
“He wanted me to go back to work in a situation that wasn’t safe, and put my students and their families at risk,” said Menth, who at the time was caring for her ailing 92-year-old mother who died last month. “I was furious.”
Bernier and Menth are among a burgeoning group of Northern California residents — and an estimated 3 million people nationwide — who have left their jobs earlier than expected since the pandemic began in March 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
They include people across the salary and occupational spectrum, from burned-out managers to service industry workers at restaurants and retailers tired of long hours and public health risks.
Some left completely on their own accord, while others were furloughed and haven’t returned to the workforce for myriad reasons. There are those who have their sights set on a different vocation and are getting the training and education they need before eventually returning to the labor force.
Others had an epiphany in the pandemic: There’s more to life than work.
They decided after many years on the job and before the pandemic added a new layer of stress, it was time to go — even though they are younger than the traditional retirement age of 65. Some of them, like Bernier and Menth, have adequate retirement investments or pensions, or both, to walk away from work permanently.
Work-life balance disrupted
Robert Eyler, a Sonoma State University economist, said, while there’s no doubt early retirees “shrink the available workforce,” whether they permanently remain out of the Sonoma County labor market over the long haul is what matters most.
For example, a person might retire early and then reemerge locally months or even years later as an independent contractor, consultant or working in a different industry, Eyler said. He noted there’s no solid number for the volume of local people who opted for early retirement because the coronavirus took hold in March 2020.
Employment data shows there’s still about 20,000 fewer workers in the local civilian labor force than there were in January 2020, and there’s anecdotal evidence an unknown but significant amount of people went back to school, switched careers or retired the past 12 to 15 months. That means it could be three or four years until the true impact of the pandemic-induced fluctuation on the county labor market is known, Eyler said.
The economist acknowledged with the county’s aging population if a large group left the workforce with no intention of getting another job, but continues to live in the area, then it can be difficult to replace them in the contracting labor market in which many employers have had to boost wages to fill job openings.
Pandemic-related circumstances greatly altered most jobs. That led to anxiety and unpleasantness for many people.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas, a neuroscientist who teaches classes at UC Berkeley on the science of happiness at work, said the pandemic disrupted work-life balance.
Before it, she said, many people had a “work hard, play hard model,” in which they were willing to endure stress and frustration in their jobs, knowing they could check out after the workday and do things enjoyable.
The pandemic isolation deprived people of that, she said.
Simon-Thomas said achieving happiness at work should be viewed broadly and include capacity for pleasant experiences, resilience and a sense of belonging to something bigger than one individual’s pursuits.
“The pandemic forced a reckoning” around workers’ ability to maintain a connection with colleagues and make a fulfilling contribution to an organization or team, she said.