Question: Work to live, or live to work?
In my last post I allowed folks to give essay topics, because I may stop writing essays after the August book lover’s convention. A commenter asked the question above.
The Question of Work and Life
The answer depends on the era: Back in the days of buckled shoes in old England, according to George Orwell, in one day a squire could ride around his property a little, walk in his fields a little, and mostly lounge in his mansion; and then keep this up, day after day, enjoying it. Orwell points out that no modern person could be satisfied with such idleness. And when Orwell wrote this, in the 1940’s, he was living in a land where they don’t have what we have: Puritan ancestors with a work ethic.
The answer depends on the age group: Many older folks must be like Andy Rooney, the essayist from the 60 Minutes news show, who wrote that even on vacation he got up early because of feeling he might be missing out on something. Teenagers sleep in because, although they would deny it, their biology makes them crave sleep. People in their twenties, although they wouldn’t admit it, sometimes make a habit of sleeping in for a different reason: As a confident sailor walking through the naval base in Esquimalt noted, “People sleep in as an escape.” That sounded right to me at the time, and still does.
The answer is a function of society: As I noted in Dysfunctional, (July 2014) our society has grown to be as complex as we can handle. It’s no surprise, then, if younger folks sleep in, while by the time you are Rooney’s age you have adjusted: You’ve found some coping skills, some self acceptance, and “you’ve got your act together” regardless of what your life might look like to someone on the outside. Of course, if you get into substance addiction then, as my addict friends tell me, your emotional growth stops at whatever year you had that first drink, even as your body keeps aging. I guess we prevent minors from taking substances because we’re trying to give them a decent chance to develop a few coping skills first, before they stand at the edge of the rabbit hole. God help the juveniles who try drugs early and slide down the tubes for life. How indecent.
I suppose we all have our little escapes or addictions; in my own life I’ve managed to get by without turning alcoholic. Last month five of us were at Moxies restaurant for a birthday celebration—and drinking coffee. Drew is my age, and much richer (long story) than I. He asked me something, probably about whether I would keep working. I remember my answer: “I have my home paid for, my car paid for, and I have enough cash to live on ramen noodles for the rest of my life. Call it “ramen profitable.” But then I’d want fancy meals once in a while, which would mean working part time, and if I’m working at all, I might as well work full time... so sure, I’ll keep working until retirement age.” As for Drew, he has since retired!
At work, about once a year I get asked if I would stay there if I had lots of money. It would be nice to think I’m being asked because I’m a philosophical fellow, and not because I’m an old geezer on my countdown to retirement. Actually, I’m asked because I would give a friendly answer. I reply, “Hey, I’m a middle-aged man, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I retired.” There’s a lot of truth to that: When I read of lottery winners who say they’ll keep working, or that guy recently who carefully gave most of his lotto money away, the winners are always older folks like me, not folks who sleep in.
As it happens, I’m privileged to have a meaningful low-paying occupation where I feel I am using my talents and striving for excellence, even if nobody else notices. If I had one of those well-paid occupations where I don’t “lean in,” where I complain and sneak drugs on the job, then my feelings might be different. It seems to me that when people feel some of their needs are being met on the job, regardless of whether they are rich, like executives and big entertainers, or humble like Andy Rooney, then they will keep going until they are too old—even as they get executive sized ulcers. It feels right to be “paying my way on the human scene.” We point our finger at a rich “playboy” because nobody wants to be a “playman.”
In this lifetime I could have made more money by staying in the armed forces. But on base it was common knowledge that most of us would die “young” if we stayed in right up until retirement. Since earlier death was most pronounced in the “combat arms” it was suggested in a 1950’s army journal (for officers) that this could be from we combat-types missing more sleep from sentry duty. But no one really knew, then or now. I figured it was from decompression, or maybe because life has less meaning after a soldier retires: any civilian job must at first seem frivolous and empty.
Which brings me to “meaning.” My retired father, a war veteran who worked in an institution, and thought I should stick with the army, told me something: It was by volunteering with cubs and scouts that he saved his sanity. The lesson to me is we all need “a life” and “meaning” somehow, in whatever way we can find, if not on the job then elsewhere. But as for volunteering in your golden years, be warned: If you don’t volunteer during your working years, you probably won’t volunteer in retirement either. That is according to business guru Peter Drucker. He noted, incidentally, in his Managing the Nonprofit Organization, that some volunteer positions could be quite rigorous, with high expectations and training.
My retired mother is now in “assisted living.” She told me she avoids reading upstairs in her room, alone, instead going downstairs to “work on” a jigsaw puzzle in the common room, where she can engage others in helping her. Accordingly, she recommends I keep up with my writing, as it will be more meaningful for me than doing puzzles. This makes sense: The Greeks believed a balanced life would include the arts. When Robert A. Heinlein, one evening, among his fellow science fiction writers, spoke of “retiring some day” the others chuckled, “Robert, you know retired carpenters, but you don’t know any retired writers....”
I think the best way to have a good balanced retirement is to have a good balanced working life first. I am saying, in conclusion, don’t just work to live, or “work to pay the bills,” but work as part of your total balanced life. Lean in. Live to work.
In the novel Friday by Robert Heinlein, an old relative of Friday is a rich, sensible Chief Executive Officer. He dies. Friday, whose job, just then, is being made obsolete, is given a letter: The CEO has written that, while bequeathing Friday a hefty chunk of change, he is purposely not supplying enough to retire on. How sensible.
(Maybe I better keep on writing essays)
~Since I have nonworking brothers, I should say: Of course, if you have the luxury of time to hem and haw then the most accurate answer to this question, as in so many old human questions, probably lies smack dab in the middle—but where’s the fun in that? Better for an essayist like me to pick one side, and give us all something to think over.
~And what about Drew? Firstly: I don’t know. Secondly: They say the final stage of a man’s life-education is learning to use leisure time wisely. Drew has earned a university degree, so I would hope he has reached that final stage. Thirdly: What I forgot to say is he owns a small business.
~Maybe Drew was wondering if I was thinking of retiring to be a writer: Sometimes that’s wise, but H.L. Mencken discouraged giving up your day job, because writing is too hard to be done keeping banker’s hours. I think Rita Mae Brown said she would only write for four hours a day because after that her quality starts falling off. I might as well stay in contact with my material, the real world, in a real job.