I was playing golf with my buddy over the weekend. We had to wait a bit on the 9th tee, so we got talking and I asked him, just in passing, how his wife was doing. He said, okay, but she doesn't really do anything.
He described his wife's day. She gets up and has breakfast. She reads the paper. Then she goes on the computer for a couple of hours. Then she'll go shopping, and by the time she comes home, her day is over. She has a glass of wine; they have dinner, watch a little TV and go to bed.
He wasn't really criticizing his wife, not directly. And I know he still loves her -- or at least his marriage is solid. They've been married a long time, with two kids, and as he lives and breathes he is a real family man. But you can tell he doesn't approve of his wife's lack of activity.
I pointed out to him that her schedule is a about the same as his, on his days off. He sits around and reads the paper and watches TV -- except instead of shopping, he plays golf, although he does go to the health club four or five days a week. Except for his heart condition (or maybe because of it), he stays in pretty good shape.
I also pointed out that his wife is retired. They have a son, age 31, and daughter who's 25. The kids are grown up (although their daughter still lives at home.) So his wife's job as a mom is mostly over. Also, she worked for most of the years of their marriage, full time before they had kids, and for a while after; part-time for the rest of their marriage until she lost her job about six or seven years ago. After she got laid off, she decided she'd had enough. Still, she'd worked a good 25 to 30 years, while still raising a family.
So what does he expect? Not only for his wife, but for himself?
He thinks his wife is wasting her time -- although he's not concerned that he, too, is "wasting" the 40 percent of the work week that he's not working, reading the paper, watching TV and playing golf.
I was thinking about this as I read a statistic, reported by Umair Haque in the Harvard Business Review, saying somewhere between 50 and 75 percent of today's employees are "disengaged" with their work, meaning they don't care much, if at all, about the work they do. A little like my friend, who used to care, but doesn't anymore.
"But can you blame them?" asks Haque. "Perhaps they don't care not just because the work feels pointless, but because in human terms, it mostly is." He wonders, if you walked into any typical workplace, would you find people brimming with enthusiasm, feeling self-fulfilled, or would you find dour people stonily working for the accursed paycheck?
I don't know if my friend is still working for the accursed paycheck, or if he's just afraid to stay home. But I do know that B, who started a new career at age 55, certainly enjoys her work. She doesn't get paid much, but she works with a dozen or so colleagues who occasionally drive her crazy but who for the most part she likes. She works with children, some of whom drive her crazy but most of whom give her many moments of sheer delight. And she's gotten to know a lot of other women in the community -- many of them 20 years younger than she is, who she would never have met otherwise -- and which, again, except for the occasional crank, she enjoys immensely.
I remember when I was working -- well, a big part of it was to get the accursed paycheck. I had a family to support, from diapers to college tuition, and I certainly could not have afforded to go for long without a paycheck, or bring home much less of a paycheck, without a major change in our lifestyle and a major disappointment to my wife and two children. But I, too, enjoyed the camaraderie of my colleagues, and for the most part I enjoyed the actual work that I did, and I also occasionally felt a sense of accomplishment when I stopped to consider I was producing something that other people valued, that complete strangers were willing to buy with their hard-earned money.
But if 75 percent of us are "disengaged" with our work -- or if a lot of us are "disengaged" with our work 75 percent of the time -- then what's the problem with retirement? Why should we be so worried about finding something to do in retirement that is fulfilling and meaningful and gives us a sense of accomplishment, or somehow makes us feel that we're improving ourselves? Doesn't that just put a lot of pressure on us retirees? If most of us didn't find that self-fulfillment at work, why should we find it in retirement? If we didn't solve the problems of the world while we were working, what makes us think we will when we're retired?
Maybe it's enough to find a schedule that's pleasing to us and that we find enjoyable from day to day. If it involves taking a course at the community college or volunteering for Meals on Wheels, that's fine. But if it doesn't, so what? Shouldn't retirement bring freedom from the Puritan work ethic? Shouldn't we at last be free from the pressure of relentless self-improvement?
Maybe it's okay to just relax ... like my friend's wife.