Since hitting the retirement zone in 2015 I’ve had plenty of time to think about my deceased career. Throughout my working life I thought the workplace was largely bollocks, but a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do. Death By Cubicle I called it, because that’s exactly what it seemed much of the time. Asphyxiation by administration. Perishing by protocol. Turn it any way you like, it had little to recommend itself other than the paycheck at the end of the month, which always struck me as blood money — and the blood was, of course, my own. I was selling my pound of flesh in order to buy a pound of some other creature’s flesh for my dinner. What a dismal and dreary hamster wheel on which to find oneself year after year.
After walking the retirement plank on the high seas nearly three years ago I was never tempted to find another job. Even when sitting around twiddling my thumbs and wondering what to do it never occurred to me to search the ads. There’s a good reason for that: I hated most of my jobs, although I loved the work I did, as self-contradictory as that may sound. I’d consciously chosen that type of work because it fit my talents and I believed it to be germane to the processes of civilization. It wasn’t particularly lucrative compared to other lines of work, but I knew the philosophical commitment I had to the work would see me through the rough spots I was bound to encounter over the course of my career. I was right about that point, too. As late as the last year of my work life I found myself thinking far more often than one might wish, “You’re doing this because it matters and creates benefit for both the present and the future.” When you’re still giving yourself pep talks to get through the day after having worked in a career for over 30 years, something’s off the rails a bit.
From my current retired perspective I can cast a glance back over the career years with something resembling objectivity, I think, save for those moments when particularly grim workplace memories erupt and objectivity dissolves in that mental acid reflux. Such eruptions are still far more frequent than I might wish. I did a fair amount of thinking about what was wrong with the world of work while I was a fixture in it, but in all honesty I’ve tried to put it out of my mind since retiring in order to get on with the business of living this very different sort of life I now have. My major touchpoint to the current world of work is the experience of the people I know here in PH, where the work hours are long, the pay is crap, and wage slavery is even more apt a description of the status quo than it was for me when I was in harness. The slavery bit here has a sharper edge to it than I experienced in all but the crap jobs I had when a young thing — and we’ve all been there, done that and got the T-shirt.
My hero then as now with regard to analysis and insight into the reality of the workplace is Barbara Ehrenreich. She went where no one had gone before — putting herself into the thick of it as a low-wage worker and then writing Nickle and Dimed. There followed a stint wandering in the climate-controlled purgatory that is the white-collar world of work, which led to the book Bait and Switch. She nailed it on both accounts and nailed it good. The experience she reports is uniformly nightmarish. No surprise there for me, since my own experience produced exactly the same assessment, right down to the last day on the job.
Part of the change in my current perspective derives from finding the joy of unencumbered work that springs only from my own motivation and design. This blog is a good example. It takes a lot of work to write the posts, manage the site, learn the ins and outs of the online platform, but it’s work I do without any hint of resentment or disgruntledness — well, almost. Having to deal with learning the online platform is annoying at times, but I’m used to being forced to do things I don’t want to do so it’s familiar territory. Being wracked on the Procrustean bed of yet another piece of software I need to use will likely continue until I kick the bucket, so one soldiers on and keeps that upper lip stiff. But hey, it gives me an opportunity to gripe about things, so it’s all good. 🙂
I can easily map my eruptions of memory about the workplace to Ehrenreich’s analysis. What took Ehrenreich several books to dissect is, I find to my dismay, mapped in terrible detail on the hard drive of my own long-term memory, ready to pop up in a jiff if a retrieval trigger is fired. I’ve just spent a bit of time going over Ehrenreich’s material — it’s been a good while since I last read it. It all comes back to me now, and the triggers have gone off like mad. And you know what? I’m not willing to have that crap back up in my grill. It was bollocks when it happened and remembering it simply confirms that yes, indeed, it really was crap. Things have become even worse since Ehrenreich published both the working-class study and the investigation into the white collar world of work. My sympathy lies entirely with people who still have to deal with it as working stiffs. Were I in the unenviable position of the millenial crowd, I’d need medication to maintain any sort of optimism about the future as I look ahead to decades in the workforce.
Ehrenreich’s studies are still in print and available for those who want to delve into the particulars. I could supply tons of examples from my personal experience as corroboration of what she identifies and then vivisects so expertly in her books. Anybody who has worked in such environments could provide a host of examples, because that’s the only kind of experience there is to be had there. But I need not multiply examples. The fact that the crap happened to me rather than to someone else is of no real importance. The issues themselves, their causes and effects are the real issue. Viable solutions to those problems are no more readily to hand today than they were when Ehrenreich published her books. So much for the progress of “civilization.” So much for teleology. So much for just about anything that makes sense.
My point in this post, then, is not to analyze the mayhem and misery of the workplace. Others have done that quite well, there’s no need for me to throw in my two cents. My point here is to consider what it means to shed the notion of having a career, of being a professional, a concept that can work in a person’s psyche in insidious ways over the long years of being a career person. It took me several months to feel free from that mindset as I moved tentatively forward into the uncharted territory of retirement. But the same thing could have happened to me earlier if I had been downsized and found it impossible to get another white-collar job, as Ehrenreich reports happens all too often to career people these days. As I went back over the misery she recounts in Bait and Switch I found confirmed once again how very lucky I was to find a professional job outside the United States at the tail end of my career — a job that paid three times what I could reasonably have expected to earn from a similar job in the USA. That I got such a job within striking distance of retirement age still seems to me nothing short of miraculous. In the States I’d have been chopped liver, period, end of story. So I was one of the lucky ones. That still doesn’t mean I loved the job or would want to do it again. And the fancy gig only lasted five years. Finally the day came when the gig was up.
Immediately after being jettisoned as persona non grata due to age by my last employer (I had reached mandatory retirement age for the country in which I worked), literally from one day to the next I found myself in the uncharted territory of life without a career. In the next few months I discovered just how deeply engrained career identification was in me. My jobs had driven nearly all my major life decisions for over 30 years. They determined where I lived, what environments I found myself in, what kind of people I was around — a complete package, although ostensibly the entire business was just about working a certain number of hours in a particular place for a particular amount of money. The unspoken demands and the aggregate collateral effects went far, far beyond that simple scenario. I was like a bug pinned on the corkboard of my career. To that I must add the fact that I didn’t have a family so work was my primary focus over the entirety of my adult life. It represented my means of leaving a legacy to future generations, because what I did was geared to create systems and resources for fostering the life of the mind. I was concerned with the future fate of whole generations, not just with my own kids and grandkids. Big Picture stuff underpinned all my career activity, giving me a sense of mission and purpose while doing a job that brought few thanks and far fewer dollars than I would have liked. It was a job I felt to be intrinsically worthwhile in the forward march of human endeavor, no matter how insane the organization in which I did it or how looney my co-workers.
And then one day in 2015 it was all suddenly over. Not only did I find myself precipitated headlong into retirement, I found myself staring straight at the onerous task of figuring out what life meant with the purpose I had worked throughout my career to serve now removed from my arena of activity — and permanently so. Gone, daddy, gone. In my blog post entitled Retirement Outside the Box (here) I discussed in minor detail the process I went through to construct a personal agenda for my golden years — which were at best gold-plated due to the earning history I had as a professional in the United States. For me there was never any question of adopting the ready-made patterns society offers to retirees — golf, bingo, sing-alongs at the Senior Center, etc. etc. ad nauseam. I’d never even entertained the thought of engaging them. What I neglected to do, however, was to prepare myself for the evaporation of the sense of life purpose my career gave me. It disappeared without a trace from one day to the next. What’s a girl to do?
For a few months after walking the retirement plank I just let the dust settle. Things would occasionally pop into my mind and if they felt like they had enough motive energy behind them, I’d take them on board and explore moving them out into the real world. During that process I listened carefully for the voice of the private person who’d been stifled all those years I was a career person — the person who wanted freedom to think, to daydream, to do whatever it might be that the nine-to-five gig had essentially put on hold for three decades.
What I learned to my horror in those early months after “separation” was that I had the mentality of a slave. The faculty of mind and spirit one could call “creative” had atrophied through decades-long disuse. What good is creativity if your life pattern is pegged to a routine from which you may not stray on penalty of penury for 30-odd years? It’s about as much good as mammaries on a male for getting the milk of creativity to flow forth — trust me on that one, Bridget. I was incapable of extending myself into the future in a completely free-form way because I knew only the rut and trundle of the career path. In short, I had a one-track mind: work. Start from a blank page and come up with something to replace all that? OMG YGTBKM. Right?
In the beginning I castigated myself for not having prepared myself for that free-float state of affairs during the last few years of my working life. I now see that there’s really no way I could have prepared myself because that reality is purely experiential and lay in a domain inaccessible to me until I finally got the boot and ended up inside The Zone. It all became quite clear then, of course, but I still had no vantage point over the territory before me. It took months until I limbered up enough mentally and imaginatively even to begin to sketch out what the next few years might look like without a career deciding the broad outlines and much of the fine detail. I expect Ehrenreich would simply smile if someone related such an experience to her — her books are about slavery, in essence, and her response would likely be, “no surprise there.” No wonder I behaved like someone released after years spent in a gulag.
Career people think primarily in organizational terms. Their actions as individuals take place within and only become effective through the organization in which they work. For someone like me, working as I did outside the for-profit sector, that sense of organizational identification was fundamental to my definition of myself as a professional. Obviously, when the career ended so did any association with organizations that served the professional purpose I had engaged for three-plus decades. That purposeful person I was suddenly found himself high and dry: still dressed up but suddenly with nowhere to go. In a word: superfluous.
I see now that the process I needed to go through was personalization. I wouldn’t have understood that point if you’d told me about it before I got off the hamster wheel of my career. I can imagine the professional me arguing with you, insisting that my career orientation was personal as well as organizational, how could it be one and not the other? But that misses the point. When the career ends, the organizational life ends, and the professional person one is during the career is effectively cut off from all means of expression. He’s still there, of course, fully intact, but he’s suddenly in a vacuum. With no means for expression, practically speaking it’s as if he suddenly ceased to exist. I haven’t checked with Miss Manners on this, but I bet dollars to donuts she’d say it’s a rather rude thing to do to a girl.
I understand now that the trick is to do a flip-flop. During the career the individual allows himself to be subsumed in the organization to fulfill a purpose or accomplish a goal. After the career ends, the work or goal must be subsumed under the individual’s sovereignty to determine course and outcome. Quite a simple inverse operation, duuh, but it took several months to dawn on my awareness. Even three years on I still don’t feel all the time that I’ve quite got it right. Organizations are big and external and highly structured and have a sense of momentum and continuity about them. If it’s just me deciding what happens, what stops me from changing my mind and throwing everything I’ve built up into disarray? Nothing stops me, in point of fact. It’s all up to me. If I decide that a course of action or a purpose I’ve engaged is rubbish, then it can go out the window in a heartbeat. I’m the one who’s running the show. Nobody else cares what happens. So I need to be the organizational architect of my endeavors rather than let an organization do that task for me.
The social element of work is something a lot of people miss after the career ends. I understand that perfectly well. I can’t say I pined after walking the plank for another cohort of colleagues, although I was fortunate during my career to work with some very good people and I still appreciate the time spent in their company. For someone much more sociable than myself the element of isolation after the career ends could be a major issue. I’m fortunate that it’s never been a big point of adjustment for me. The isolation of purpose is the real challenge for me. I’m not terribly keen on feeling superfluous. And since I now find myself working outside an organization, I have to become my own CEO (and CFO if it involves financial outlay to do some project or other) and my own office staff and my own … well, everything. Sometimes I miss the back-and-forth of ideas that I had with my colleagues in the workplace. But if the truth be told, there has yet to be a day when I’d rather be back in a cubicle huddled over the computer keyboard than sitting at my own desk within a short walk of my kitchen from whence coffee proceeds in great abundance — along with pecan sticky rolls and other occupational hazards of working at home LOL.
Was it really a stroke of luck when my career ended? As I think it about it now, three years on, I think it was. I will own that if I’d been offered an extension of contract in my final year, I’d have taken it without a second thought, primarily because of the financial advantage to be gained. When you have no experience being retired and look ahead to years — who can tell how many? — when your active income drops way down low and stays there, it makes all the sense in the world to keep getting that nice fat paycheck for a while longer. But there was no extension. Fortunately for me I’d been foresightful enough to see to the financial end of the retirement equation over the years so that going off the plank on Retirement Day didn’t involve sinking fiscally like a rock into the briny deep. I bobbed along quite jauntily on the surface because I had my life jacket on, but I had no idea at all in which direction to swim to sight land.
There remains some niggling at the back of my mind — hypothetical issues again, yet another of those “Why On Earth” thoughts that does nobody any good even if it gets something off your chest. What niggles is the inanity of the boxes people insist on stuffing life into. They’re all of our own making, of course. Things could be organized completely differently and still hum along swimmingly — for example: work life. According to some lights by which I have yet to be illuminated, it is deemed meet and right that after crossing the retirement line involvement in the world as one engaged it during one’s career undergoes a permanent change and becomes beside the point. That practice seems ill-advised and inordinately wasteful to me. And the things offered by society as substitutes OMG … golf, bingo, Meals On Wheels — a dour and dismal litany that only someone utterly devoid of innervation could possibly think fulfilling elements of a post-career life. But I cavil to no purpose, since it’s not going to change during the remainder of my natural lifetime.
So yes, I finally got myself worked around and did the flip-flop to the best of my ability. It’s a challenge, to be sure, and there’s no help streaming in from any particular quarter. You have to come up with the roadmap by yourself from whole cloth. If I ever get it all figured out, I’ll write a self-help book and make millions. Ah, one last chance for that sea-view condo in Monte Carlo, woohoo!
I’m in charge now, not some organization with an intractable hierarchy and tetchy supervisors who have axes to grind due to bad relationships with their moms. I decide what purposes I serve and what projects I engage. The world isn’t particularly welcoming of or yielding to such endeavors, if the truth be told, but I’m shielded by the fact that I’m completely independent now, both conceptually and financially. The only performance evaluation I get is the one I give myself, and I get a raise no matter what. 🙂
So here’s the final outcome: bugger the career thing. Good riddance. If I could find a hair-flip icon I’d use it right now. I did my time and now I’m out of the klink, enjoying being footlose and fancy-free. So let’s hear a hearty round of applause for the End of Career, because the big secret is that it’s really the Beginning of You. You get to throw off all the shackles you wore during the working life you had and become the product of your own imagination. Now that’s what I call a real stroke of luck.