Retiring, but not shyly: some thoughts about work and worth

One of the unexpected pleasures that come with retirement is the freedom to laugh at people. It’s always there, but being ‘out of the active workforce’ allows one to speak without fear of retribution in the workplace. Right now, I’m having a good inner laugh as the so-called ‘working classes’. Before, anyone reaches for a vase to throw in my direction, I’m not going off on some classist rant about ‘unwashed masses’ or ‘those people’. I’m looking at the sizeable and growing mass of people who think that their ‘work’ puts them in some privileged position. 

One thing I really enjoy these days is answering the question “So, what do you do?” I often reply “I’m retired,” then add a rider, such as “But, I do pole dancing.” That’s usually good for a few minutes of interest. In ‘power towns’ like Washington DC, that question used to come out so that people would know to whom they should latch onto at cocktail parties so that a ‘good ‘connection’ could be set up. “We must do lunch. Call me!” Finger and thumb poised by the face. It was a tired set of lines, and would never rank high in the pick-up phrases of the century.

Many people, when asked, detest the jobs they have. This time, last year, the New York Times published a survey they had conducted with Harvard into the reasons; the results are interesting to read. Curious, then, how people cling to phrases like ‘It’s my job’, or ‘I’m working’ as if they give life. But, maybe, that’s it: the ‘job’ gives life. Without it, many feel and fear death, literal and metaphorical. Those of us ‘on the other side’ can send back messages saying “It’s alright, here.”

I was assailed by one those “I’m working” moments the other day. As an economist, I’ve thought a lot about work and what labour means in an analytical sense. One of the things I noticed, over the years, is that perception of work and its worth are personal and collective. One aspect of that is how the modern ‘I’m working’ brigade tend to be people who my grandparents would have called ‘paper shufflers’. It speaks to the shift in our economies and societies away from manual labour to service and thinking jobs. The brain is the new tool in many fields.  The output of such ‘work’ is often barely visible. The absence of long lines at counters may reflect the thoughtful plan put in place by a manager. But, it’s when we have to wait hours that we see a problem and think that people need to work better. 

I walked into an office building the other day and saw no one sitting at any of the desks; they were all out at meetings or working on site. Knowing what is work and when it is being done well, nowadays, is tricky. SSex worksers may spend most of their days lying down. Far be it for us to say that they need to get up and do some work. 

I can’t speak personally to the days when the tractor took over from the hand ploughs and if there was similar issue about those who used the new tools.

At various points in my life I’ve done physical or heavy labour for a living: on a building site and farm, for instance. I’ve also been around lots of people who worked in similar and more physically challenging fields: coal mines, fishing trawler, butchery, abbatoir, bakery, factory, were among those areas.  

What did you do, today?
never heard any of those people utter such a phrase as ‘I’m working’. I guess part of it was that their work was quite obvious.

When I played football in a rural part of Britain, if one of my football team mates came into the dressing room with his blood-spattered apron, he wasn’t asked or felt the need to say, what he’d been doing. In Wales, he might have said, with that Gallic lilt, “Chopping up some Englishmen,” if he felt the need to take a dig at someone.image

We’ve learned that people’s personal perception of their jobs is important. So, it’s interesting that surveys often point to the fact that many people ‘hate’ the jobs they have and how it restricts their ability to do what they want to do. Why do they stay? Many reasons, real and imagined. But, moving jobs is both a positive and negative in society’s eyes. The person cannot stay with a job? The person has outgrown the job and needs more challenges? The person is hard to work with. They dislike their home life. Much more. 

The current generation is challenging work notions more vigorously, it seems, if you look at the graphic above. But, challenge as they may, the stock of opinions is still not theirs to decide. The divide between personal and collective perceptions of work and attitudes to it are shown graphically in the chart.

One of the things that retired people as a group tend to discover is that besides doing ‘tasks’ for money, a bounty of opportunites exists to do things for other people, and getting paid for it is often far from their minds. Let’s call that ‘volunteerism’, for want of a better term. People who leave the workforce before retiring also discover this set of opportunities. 

Just yesterday, when a suden rainstorm hit Kingston in the midafternoon, I bumped into  a Canadian lady at school. Her husband is here on assignment, and she has her career ‘on pause’. She had a toddler in her arms, and two young children were holding her hands. She could not hold an umbrella and was getting soaked. I offered her mine as cover. She greeted me with a big smile and said it was such a long time since we’d seen each other. But, she’d been busy with having to complete some studies she was doing and with a lot of volunteer activity. She’s a hard worker.

One of the challenges that people are having to address is how to use their time with fulfilment, not just fully. A rat can run all day on a treadmill: that’s being busy. Is it fun? Is it fulfilling? I shouldn’t presume, but for a human, that seems less fun.

I took up golf about four years ago. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not comparing myself with professionals or even very good amateurs in the following. Top golfers are reported to practise about eight hours a day. That’s a day’s work. Between two to four days of the week they play in tournaments; many practise afterwards, to correct problems they encountered during their day’s play. All have warm-up routines that basically practise the important techniques they need. Their work days are very long. Their skills show how well they have practised. We know, or at least profess to believe, that practice makes perfect. I’m in retirement, I try to play about two days a week, but I try to practise every day–in my yard, not at a range or on a golf course. I work on the weakest part of my game. I work on posture. I work on swing. I work on mental things, such as not getting excited about good shots or depressed about bad ones. I work to be consistent. That’s a lot of work. I do other things, too. Some I volunteer for, some I choose. I enjoy my work, in all its forms.

My suggestion to the ‘I’m working’ fraternity or sorority is to ensure that that ‘work’ is really fulfilling some purpose or personal objective in which you have a passionate interest, not just filling time. 

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)

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