I am the youngest by far in my extended family of siblings and cousins. On average, they are 15 years older than me. Hanging around them means a lifetime of being immersed in their baby boom culture, watching them get degrees, start jobs, get married, buy homes, have kids, juggle daycare and then college tuitions. I am perpetually 20 steps behind them all.
And I’m a late bloomer of sorts, which didn’t help me when I’d hyperventilate over the status of my life. I didn’t do anything at the same age as my siblings and cousins. I did many things on my own which means things took me longer, anywhere from 8-15 years later than them. I always felt like certain things, marriage and kids for one, would never happen for me.
A few years ago my oldest sister announced she was finally retiring, and it hit me: she wasn’t retiring at an unusually young or old age but at a normal age. She’s 14 years older than me, which meant I could conceivably retire in 14 years myself.
Shut the front door.
That news shook my world. I’d been saving financially for retirement for a couple of decades at that point. What I hadn’t done is prepare mentally for it. No way, no how was I financially, professionally, personally, mentally ready for it.
See, when my sister announced her retirement, my youngest was a kindergartener. I swear, two months before he started school, we deep cleaned his room and found a binky behind his bed that had been there who knows how long. I mean, right? In the blink of an eye he went from baby to toddler to school-ager. Retirement, therefore, was the furthest thing from my mind, but suddenly it appeared in the horizon for the first time in my life, and I thought I would projectile vomit at the thought.
I’ve had a love-hate relationship with work over the years, as do so many people. Unlike many people, I think of my work as a profession and the whole of it as a career. I have always aimed to get value and satisfaction out of my work even if I couldn’t quite place my finger on what exactly I wanted to do.
Now there have been times in my life when I changed jobs, and suddenly my sense of self completely disappeared. The new job turned out to be nothing more than that: a job. Suddenly I found myself missing what I had, a professional position with career aspirations and growth, and a feeling that someone, anyone, at the company cared about me and how I grew. But to hold “just a job”? You may as well stab my heart with a knife, I’d bleed to death under the circumstances.
This past year two more relatives retired and I’ve watched a huge number of boomers leave the workforce. I wonder whether some of them viewed their work the way I do: a career, a calling. Were they ready? How do you get ready when so much of who you are is wrapped up in what you do? After all, you spend so much of your day working.
Many of these people retired with no fanfare. Some people wanted to leave quietly. Some left as part of a corporate restructuring, and some were even contractually obligated to stay quiet about it least they impact their severance. They were subject to a gag order, real or perceived.
Imagine me on a gag order. Again, stab my heart with a knife as I’d bleed to death. I need to talk to make sense of things. I write to make sense of things. It’s not that I don’t know how to stay mum when discretion is required, but whoa.
I try to put myself in their shoes. What must it feel like to have pursued a career your whole life and to have it end quietly, in a thud. No fanfare, no thanks, no party, just a severance. Especially when you consider your work to be more than a job, but your identity?
How do you fortify yourself from feeling disoriented, unwanted, or unvalued in that situation? As a coping mechanism, do you start thinking of your work, your career, as just a job? Just a paycheck that you collect?
I’ve never wanted to do that. Never. And I don’t want to become so disenchanted with work to become disengaged, to just hold down a job. I pursued an education and I have deliberately changed employers for the sole purpose of avoiding boredom. While I can’t say that I’ve had a strong calling in life to do something in particular, I have always been driven to do my best. How can you reconcile your ethics and heart under those circumstances?
Besides, I’m the breadwinner – so it would be completely foolhardy on my part to disengage, clock my time, and simply collect a paycheck.
My Dad retired from Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel as a laborer after 45 years with the company. He was happy to be done, period. Then again, he was a hard-working, understated, introverted kind of guy. We threw him a pretty huge retirement party, and all of my siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins came to celebrate him. It was a happy way to bring closure to the monotony of four + decades working shifts in a dirty, loud steel mill.
I don’t know what will happen when it’s my turn. I don’t know how to prepare myself mentally for that possibility. It’s especially difficult to do so when you realize it’s actually on the horizon in the next 10-15 years, if I’m lucky enough to stay employed that long. Having kids so much later in life means my financial obligations and goals relative to them will take me longer to achieve.
It’s a race. Will I stay employed, meet my personal goals and college-tuiting-funding goals for my kids, and retire on my terms or will it get cut short in favor of the up and coming Millenials? Will I feel like I contributed in a meaningful way to the best of my ability?
Guess I’ll have to wait and see.
Photo by Charles Koh on Unsplash