A lifetime on the job leaves many feeling cheated at end

Value Judgments

Your Money

January 11, 2004|By JANET KIDD STEWART

NEARING retirement age, you've just met with a financial planner who has put all your assets, the sum total of a career's worth of missed family dinners and interminable compromises, on a single sheet of paper.

And then that sinking feeling hits. Is this all there is?

If it's any comfort, you're not alone. At ever-younger ages, American workers are questioning whether the sacrifices of work are worth it.

In a retirement savings survey last fall, Allstate Corp. found 13 percent of Generation X workers hope to retire between the ages of 45 and 54.

Just last month, Assistant Treasury Secretary Pamela Olson quit her post, telling President Bush she simply found it too difficult to manage the job and spend time with her family.

An article last fall in a national publication about executive women dropping out of the work force has been circling professional e-mail in-baskets ever since.

My hunch is that the divide between recent retirees and these executive dropouts isn't all that wide. Both groups have tallied the balance sheet on work's rewards and demands and found the first column pretty slim.

The real question, it seems, should be: Are we looking for meaning in the wrong place, and can graduates of the American work ethic ever detach their identities from their titles?

One 60-something college professor I know confided that his pension and retirement savings have grown to the point where he will make more money when he retires than he does now in salary. "Will I be happy doing nothing or, more precisely, will I be satisfied without formal responsibilities?" he asks. "Guess it will be volunteer organizations that will occupy my time, but will I still get that feeling of accomplishment?"

After nearly 30 years in retail-store management, Bill Fitzgerald of Cleveland was frightened of retirement. While still working three years ago, he enrolled in an East Coast workshop designed to get participants thinking about second careers and other ventures after retirement.

So wedded to his job that he feared losing all his identity when he quit, he began consulting peers as an ad-hoc "board of directors" for his second career as a project-management consultant, which he began about a year ago. But he also began to think of his life in the whole and plan for volunteer opportunities and other personal goals, like getting into better physical shape. "It gave me a new lease on life," he said.

Career consultants report similar feelings across a host of professions.

"A lot of people regret that the work they're doing has not been as rewarding as they wanted it to be," said Gardner Yenawine, the New Hampshire consultant who ran the workshop Fitzgerald attended. "But what they really wanted was a more rewarding life. Let's face it: A lot of the jobs in today's economy are just boring."

Blame pressure to excel at ever-earlier ages for the distorted focus, experts say.

"A shift happened in the '80s in which the notion of the American dream and its fulfillment became solely focused on financial and work accomplishment," said Stephen Goldbart, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of the Money, Meaning & Choices Institute in Kentfield, Calif. "The fear was that if your whole life wasn't focused on work, you wouldn't get ahead."

I'm one of those mid-career women who has stepped out of the office in search of a more meaningful relationship with my family and a better balance in life. But I know from personal experience that a previous generation already has been there, asking the same questions.

My dad sold magazine subscriptions at age 5 and retired as an oil company executive at 56, and then had just five years of nonworking time before his death at 61. Even in his final working years, he was up at 5 a.m. and usually at work by 6.

But when he tallied up his early-retirement package, he was dismayed at how small it all looked. Even the substantial financial sum didn't seem to mean much at that point.

"Your whole life reduced to one page," I remember him muttering. "You work a long time."

Write to Janet Kidd Stewart in care of Your Money, Room 400, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60611 or via e-mail at yourmoneytribune.com.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.