Transitions, Part 3

The Thinker by Rodin

When it gets a little too comfortable or too familiar, life seems to conspire to kick you in the pants. If you are seventeen going on eighteen, this is the time of year when you are about to graduate high school and are thrust, usually with some trepidation, onto a larger and more chaotic adult stage. If you are a civil servant like me, age 54 going on 55 next year, you are pondering a looming transition called “retirement”.

For me, the transition from high school to college was more welcome than scary. Unlike the singer Vitamin C (Colleen Ann Fitzpatrick) whose high school memories must be pretty good, mine were anything but that. My fond memories extend primarily to a few teachers who inspired me. The high school I attended did not. I felt bound for success elsewhere whereas my apathetic classmates seemed bound for a surfboard and lives full of loafing. While I hope they did not turn out that way, thirty-five years later I still cannot be bothered to go to my high school reunions. I’m not sure any of my classmates’ names would even ring a bell.

In my spare time at the church I attend I facilitate a youth group. They are a tight, eclectic and interesting bunch, and one of the few reasons I have to hope for our future. It would be hard to overstate how intelligent, compassionate and interesting they are as near adults. It’s unclear to what extent our church molded them, but as long-term recipients of years of religious education this group of high school students have bonded amazingly well. And yet next month they will be handed diplomas and will likely never see each other again, at least as a group. Before they tackle the world of adulthood, they get to lead a youth service planned for later this month and give the congregation their thoughts on this transition. Tonight, as one of the adult advisors, I get to facilitate planning for the service.

Meanwhile, I get to ponder transitions of my own. I am now a year away from being able to retire. I doubt I will retire the day I turn eligible, but it is strange to be able to count when that date could be in months rather than years. While no one is forced to retire when they are eligible, I am beginning to wonder if I will be nudged, if not shoved in that direction. The federal workforce, already actually quite lean (about 150,000 fewer employees than when Ronald Reagan was president) is likely to get leaner in the years ahead. I will be watching legislation carefully. I suspect Congress will be eyeing our pensions fund for cuts. I doubt I will come out unscathed. I may find it advantageous to retire to avoid pension cuts that might happen if I hung around. My pension may be cut regardless. I sense a job transition is ahead for me and it is likely to be sooner rather than later.

Knowing that my time as a civil servant is likely quite limited, last week I was pondering if I should attend a conference in June. I can go myself or send someone else instead. Perhaps I should go and consider it a perk of the job. On the other hand, if I were to retire within the next few years, the value of my attendance would be diminished. Instead, I should send others further away from retirement instead. This is one small sign of many that another transition is looming for me.

Just like the seniors in our youth group so used to hanging with each other that their pending separation is likely a cause of anxiety, I am having mixed feelings about my retirement. If you are happy with your work, why retire? I work with a wonderful staff of dedicated professionals, we do excellent work and unlike many jobs, the meaning of our work is quite obvious and easily measured. Moreover, I am paid very well to do it. In short, I am in my optimal comfort zone, productive and generally happy to do my work. A transition, even for the alleged comfort zone of “retirement”, is not necessarily comforting.

My office

For I know I would miss certain things, like doing excellent and meaningful work. I would also miss my employees and those who work for me who are all wonderful folk. You cannot help but think of them more as friends than colleagues after a while because you see far more of them than you do of any of your friends, including often your spouse. I would miss my boss, who can retire soon herself, my chain of command and the ancillary support staff who supported me. I would miss chatting with Melissa down in the credit union, the wonderful soups in the cafeteria and the opportunities to regularly travel the country on someone else’s dime. I would miss the view from the fifth floor of my office window. At the same time, I know it is pointless to hold onto these things. The institution I am a part of will change with political winds, which are likely to be harsh. People younger than me with arguably more talent are ready to assume my work, and really should. I know I cannot hold onto this good job indefinitely and even if I did it would not stay the way it is.

What would I do to fill the void it would leave in my life? I know I would keep working, at least part time, but I also know whatever I do next is likely to feel anticlimactic. Professionally, I have peaked. Teaching or whatever next career I pick will probably have its own unique challenges. Like the seniors in our youth group, I too will have to step into my own murky future.

Just like our youth, which get to try to enjoy the ephemeral feeling of a last month together before they step across a one-way threshold, I too sense a one-way threshold ahead of me and I sense I will be taking that step sooner rather than later. Life is mostly about change. It is sometimes good, sometimes bad but most often a mixed experience. It’s about moving outside your comfort zone whether you like it or not if life gets too comfortable and embracing the less comfortable. Ideally retirement is about moving toward a more comfortable zone, but there is also a great deal of comfort from forty years of meaningful work in the workforce. Finding a next job, albeit a part time one will be in some measure a move back toward the comfort of the workforce. My boss will likely be younger than me, my coworkers probably far less fun to be with.

And the comforting view outside my window is definitely going to change.