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Road Biking

MY DAD, WORK and the Search for Meaning (and money).

Updated: May 16

The other day I was having a drink and a chat with my son and a few of his pals. One of them hinted that he was envious of his Dad who was retired and seemed to be having a great time. Of course, given the choice, he knew he would much rather have most of his life in front of him, but there was a hint of envy. I remember having the same thought on the odd occasion. My Dad appeared to enjoy what, in reality, became an increasingly sedentary life. He was from a generation where to complain or show what you really felt was a betrayal, so I knew what he had done and roughly when he had done it, but I never really knew what he really felt about his life and particularly his retirement. When I asked how he was he would always just say, ‘I’m happy’.

It got me thinking. He was a company man, tied to the business with every part of his being, back in the day when wives and partners (provided it was a long term, heterosexual relationship) were invited to the company Christmas party and the commitment, to everything, was total. The reward, a pension that gave you just enough to remain thankful that the corporation had taken care of you. As with the cargo cults of Melanesia back in deep history, reciprocity was the key. He scratched their backs and they created the perception that they scratched his. It worked, after a fashion.

One day, aged 58 he was called in and told he was no longer needed, surplus to requirements. No more business trips, planning, scheduling, meetings, canteen lunches, leaving home at 6am on the dot, home at 7pm. All gone, overnight! He proudly placed the framed aerial photograph of the factory where he had worked for so many years on a wall at home, shook a few hands and that was that.

Looking back, that must have been one heck of a shock. These days, it appears that we are more inclined to see the ending of a working life as a process that takes place over time and so we avoid the finality experienced by so many. However, even in 2024, you could find yourself in the steel industry in Port Talbot where your family have worked for generations, having the factory gates slammed shut in your face.

We appear to be looking for ways to keep things going, in part for financial reasons but also because, well, we need to keep constructively busy and know that we are still relevant in a work environment where ageism is rife. When I interview people and chat to people, there is no doubt that the trend is towards continuity of work, in some way, shape or form. I really want to work, but I'm nearly 50 and they're not interested, is a common cry.

In an interesting Bartlebury column in The Economist, we are told that pleasure cruises, golf and tracing the family tree are not that fulfilling. The evidence for this conclusion is unclear, but if it helps, I tend to agree. The article goes on to ask ‘can anything truly replace the framework and buzz of being part of the action?....Hobbies are all well and good….but for the driven, they feel pointless and even slightly embarrassing’. Bartleby goes on to use the examples of Giorgio Armani, Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger all going to work well into their 90’s. The article concludes by informing us that ‘there is depth in being useful. And excitement, even in significantly lower doses can act as an anti-ageing serum’

There is an irony here of course. I presume Bartlebury is a journalist, writing articles whilst sitting in the comfort of his/ her own home a few days a week. Nice work if you can get it and certainly the kind of work you can imagine doing well into your dotage. S/he is unlikely to be heading to the blast furnace to pick up a P45.

For so many people, the trend is definitely towards doing something useful and meaningful, which means different things to different people. For many, to keep the money coming in is the driver and for others the need for relevance is the key. What we do know is that our lifespans are increasing, and we also know that as we approach 50 we begin to look at ourselves and what we want out of life slightly differently and more urgently.

My Dad didn’t really have to think about it quite so much, despite the shock. His life was pretty much planned out once he found the paternalistic corporation that ‘looked after him’ until they needed him no longer. He was a good, if rather a closed man, fairly typical of his generation.

Today, rather than coming to a sudden stop, we are really thinking about it, seeking some clarity and understanding about our lives and our place in the world. For me, I still need to be part of the action. Our search for meaning should never end and thank goodness for that.

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