It is not only politicians who stay in their jobs for a long, long time. One of my favorite uncles is in his eighties, and he continues to drive truck. He went from long haul to local deliveries, but he’s still behind the wheel. At my former university, there are professors currently on the job who were already senior faculty when I first showed up in 1993. I’m now retired, and they go to work each day. Whereas most of us look forward to retirement, there are others who may never willingly leave their offices, their factories, their shops, or their Senate chambers.
At my fifty-year high school reunion, a former classmate told me that one of our old friends kept showing up for work even after he’d been forced to retire from a job he’d held for nearly fifty years. His former employer eventually had to ban him from the premises. Obviously this was an extreme case, but it is an example of someone whose identity was his work. He literally was lost without it.
When does a long time on the job become too long? The answer to this question is, “It depends.” I’ve stopped asking septuagenarians who haven’t retired why they haven’t. I get only one of two answers. They either like what they are doing or they don’t know what else they would do if they quit. No one has ever told me that he or she is working for the money. No one has ever admitted to me that he or she is addicted to the power and/or adoration that comes with the job.
Leisure is a state of mind, and if people continue to find pleasure and intrinsic satisfaction in their work, then work makes sense. If, however, they stay on the job only because work is all they know, it means that an exaggerated work ethic has ruled their lives for too long, and now there is a price to pay. How can I not feel sorry for those who continue to work because all of their self-worth is tied up in their jobs? (I vaguely remember a study that suggested a significant number of people who work on their days off do so because they otherwise feel like they are wasting their time.)
Many of us feel ready to retire a few years before we actually do. For me, the intrinsic rewards of working at the university waned when I was sixty-one years old. It coincided with me leaving the classroom to become a full-time administrator. I was better able to advocate for students from an administrative position than as an instructor, but it meant I sometimes went days without even speaking with a student. I could have returned to the classroom and rekindled my enthusiasm, but instead I wrote policy and sat through endless committee meetings for two more years and then retired. Those final years were fine, because 1) I did some good and 2) once I had an exact target date for my retirement, the time passed quickly. When I did step down, my replacement was excellent, so I take it as confirmation that retirement was the right decision.
The initial theme for this blog was to rail about doddering US Senators. I am not going to do that. I have more important things to do with my leisure time than spend it complaining about matters beyond my control.