Stepping out from the office into the open.

When to Work and When Not To

Photo caption: From within four walls of my office into the open air, into the sunlight.

Photos: Ranjan Mukherjee. Left, at work in my office. Right, in the open, in retirement.

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.Ecclesiastes

Over the holidays, while having a good time with friends and family, I wondered why people feel the need to continue working when they do not have to. What compels them? COVID-19 has made us rethink what we value most in life. People enjoyed working from home spending more time with their families. Why not take it a step further? Make ‘family’ the center of our lives, not ‘work’. So, why don’t they?

Let’s start with a simple, basic question—what makes a person happy?

A good, well-paying job, a fancy title with the prestige and perks that go with it, a big house, and an expensive car? Yes, these are important, and for some, would be enough. But is that all? Let’s dig a little deeper.

Even a few decades earlier, for most, a job was a means to an end: to earn money to enjoy life. Life and enjoying life were simple: time with family and friends, dinner around the kitchen table, visiting friends and neighbors, a walk in the park, a movie with friends, or a vacation at the beach. Simple, reasonable, family-oriented pleasures.

Technology and automation gradually crept into the labor force, and people thought of that as a good thing. Automation made grueling, repetitive, boring jobs a thing of the past. As mass-produced products became cheaper and better, efficiency and productivity rose. The expectation was that we could maintain the same or higher productivity levels by putting in fewer hours of work. Said differently, we would have to work less to maintain the same standard of living. As a result, we would have more leisure time to enjoy life.

We know that did not turn out as expected. People are working longer and harder yet feel like they are falling behind. Many are not happy or content taking part in the rat race to the top. We constantly complain about the daily grind, the bad bosses, and long commutes. With advanced technologies like cell phones and laptops, work follows us home. There is no real distinction between home and the workplace.

Many tomes have been written and the airwaves are full of punditry on this topic. But I want to address subtle, not so well-discussed, or appreciated facts on the shift in our attitudes toward work, our self-worth, and what we perceive as giving us satisfaction.

Nowadays, work is no more a means to an end—it is the end itself. People are supposed to find fruition and satisfaction from their work. This is true for many artists, musicians, and writers. We all know of historical cases of creative individuals who loved their work and were prepared to persevere, even though their worth may not have been recognized at the time. Penury stared them in the face, and they lived a hard life. Many became famous only after their deaths. But let us leave such rare geniuses aside for the moment.

A case for work becoming our lives could also be made for the many creative entrepreneurs who have great ideas and the drive to bring them to fruition. They perhaps started in a garage or their parent’s kitchen or basement. They gradually developed their idea into brands known the world over, leading companies worth billions of dollars. They love their work. It defines them. But the enormous time and energy needed for these endeavors often come at a cost to their private lives and relationships. Plus, they are not truly free to do what they like. They must cater to the fickle tastes of their customers and satisfy their investors and board of directors. They may get satisfaction from their work until they fall out with their board. Then they are forced to quit. It has happened. Such is the nature of work.

I know of many who are not happy in their jobs. They are well-paid empty nesters, their mortgages and children’s education are paid off, they have sizable nest eggs, and they could retire if they wanted to. But they don’t. I have tried to analyze why they cannot take that final step toward retiring. Here are some reasons I think are worth mentioning.

  1. Retirement has become a dirty word. I don’t understand why. It should be a demonstrable mark of success: a life well planned and lived, a well-paid job, the result of financial savvy, and with a reasonable nest egg. Time now for golf, world travel, or whatever the person desires. Instead, people refrain from even mentioning it. I have often heard, “I am not ready to retire and will continue working as long as I can.” Why, if the work makes one unhappy?
  2. It is a sign of aging. Retirement means we are past middle age, perhaps well past it. That is just a fact. We are all aging; there is nothing that can stop it so far. Some accept this and age gracefully. Some are scared and try to deny or obscure the consequences of aging. But it can only go so far (I have talked about this at length in Chapter 5). People who live relaxed, stress-free lives often live longer than the average, so continuing to work in a stressful job is not an antidote to aging. I think it is better to bow out with grace and dignity than keep clinging on as past-their-prime old-timers. In many countries, there is a mandatory retirement age, with good reason. We should have a similar policy in the US in public and private sectors at all levels. It is implausible that the ability to make important decisions regarding war and peace, life and death, or legislations and corporate policies that affect the lives and livelihoods of millions will keep improving as decision-makers get older and older—time for the old-timers to step back and allow the next generation to step in.
  3. Retirement makes us lose self-worth in the eyes of others. Unfortunately, we have tied how we value ourselves not on our intrinsic value as an individual but to how others perceive us. We try and influence this perception by spending a lot of money and effort on that perception, e.g., a big house, flashy cars, and expensive vacations, all considered marks of “success.” We now have a perfectly circular argument; we need to keep up this perception by continuously earning and spending. The minute we stop, we are perceived to have fallen off the treadmill. The solution is simple and found in our age-old philosophies: understand who we really are. One soon realizes that it is possible to value oneself without overt dependence on the opinion of others. This may be the Zen in me speaking.
  4. People fear being alone with their thoughts. For decades now, modern life has forced upon us the need to immerse ourselves in work, both at the workplace and beyond. We are constantly connected through cellphones, tablets, and laptops. We take them on vacations, into restaurants, and even to bed. I once had a colleague describe how he had read a scientific journal article on vacation at the beach on his iPad. He said it with barely concealed pride, but that would have been the last thing on my mind on vacation. What if we are suddenly disconnected, as in a city-wide power outage? Many would not know what to do with their free time and would experience something akin to withdrawal symptoms. Similarly, what would we do with all the free time upon retiring? Perhaps it is this that people fear most. The opposite should be the case. We should be delighted with all the free time available and use it to do things we always dreamed of but never had time to do.
  5. People are living longer and may fear running out of money in their old age. Very few companies now offer pension plans, and the stock market will not keep rising forever, including the retirement accounts invested in it. Many feel they do not have enough money to retire. These are valid concerns. But is working till one drops dead based on the above assumption a good option? When does that person get a chance to relax and enjoy life? Retirement requires careful assessment of one’s finances, health, goals, and purpose in life. It requires careful planning from early on. Perhaps most people have not done that. Or, they may have other obligations like caring for aging parents or supporting children or grandchildren. They need the money and so need to continue working.

People are different. Some may find fulfillment in giving back to society, in charity. That is commendable. Others may find satisfaction and joy in immersing themselves in their work to the point that they become strangers to their families. Their work becomes their identity. But that still begs the question: what is so addicting in their work that it’s worth distancing themselves from their family and friends? Is it money? Money is necessary up to a point to cover basic needs, but money is not the motivator here. Is it prestige, social status, or power? If so, these are sorry props for the ego and very fleeting.

Retired life can be leisurely and productive. I have often heard friends say, “I will go crazy if I stay at home.” I have been retired and at home for nine years and have not become crazy or bored. On the contrary, I am happily engaged in traveling and writing. But I do it on my schedule; there is no pressure. It is something I want to do, not have to do. And the choice of those two words, “want” versus “have,” makes all the difference. My self-worth has not diminished—not in my eyes, at least.

The good news is that many have had enough of this constant toil. Baby boomers are retiring in increasing numbers. In other counties youngsters are rebelling at the 9 to 9 work ethic, 6 days a week. This has obvious implications for the labor force and has caused consternation in all societies and forms of government. It must be addressed as societies and economies evolve.

At some point in life, there comes a choice: work leisurely at one’s own pace or not. Be your own master or beholden to another.

I have made my choice. What would you choose?

#work #retirement

This article is adapted from my book LIVING FREE, LIVING WELL, MY LIFE AS A ZEN BON VIVANT available on Amazon and an earlier post titled In Defense of Leisure.

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