Wednesday 8 November 2023

Getting a Living, Forgetting to Live: A Few Thoughts on My 30 Years Service

Men for the sake of getting a living forget to live. (Margaret Fuller)

A few weeks ago I was listening in to the regular “all colleague call” at work. I was caught totally by surprise when I heard my name called out, to recognise my having completed thirty years of service. The anniversary had completely escaped my notice. In that time, I’ve actually worked for at least five employers, as the agency or company that employed me was outsourced, renamed, bought out, or merged with another entity. For reasons I’ve never quite understood, this all counts as continuous service.

Many of my colleagues underwent the same transformation, depending on when they boarded the carousel. There aren’t too many, though, who’ve worked here as long as I have. Almost everyone I started out with has long since retired, left, or otherwise moved on. I follow a few of them on social media, but most were colleagues rather than friends and I’ve not sought to keep the connections alive. In passing, I count this as growth on my part. In the more distant past I’ve attempted to hold on to connections long beyond their sell-by date.

Listening to my three decade career being briefly summarised on the call felt ... strange. I wasn’t embarrassed at being, momentarily, the focus of attention. I don’t embarrass easily. That said, it would have been nice if all the details had been correct. I was reminded of the eulogy at my mother’s funeral. The minister misrepresented aspects not only of her life — perhaps in a deliberate spirit of generosity — but mine too. It wasn’t a huge deal then, and it wasn’t a huge deal on the work call either. But little things matter. Getting it right matters. It’s not that they didn’t care. The truth, in both scenarios, is that almost no one present knew me well enough to get the details right.

After the call, I accepted the congratulations and comradely teasing of my team mates. We get on well and I enjoy their company, but the experience left me feeling demotivated. Demoralised. More than anything else, I felt sad. Thirty years working for essentially the same employer — and in essentially the same role — doesn’t feel much of an achievement to me. It feels like what happens when you never pushed yourself to find something better.

It’s not that I feel old. I’m sixty-two and happy for anyone to know it. That said, those thirty years represent almost half of my life so far. What have I achieved? I’ve advanced one grade, from Executive Officer (EO) to Higher Executive Officer (HEO). I was a team leader for many years, but am now a team member again. I’m content enough and I’m not looking for advancement in what remains of my working career. As I described in a post about lifelong learning, accepting that I’m not a natural leader (and have no desire to become one) has been liberating. It points, nonetheless, to a singular lack of ambition.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I’m aware how fortunate I am to be in work at all. In those thirty years I’ve never felt my job was at risk. It’s been very stressful at times, but that’s less of an issue nowadays. I may gripe about my lack of progression and the fact there’s no chance of a pay rise in my remaining years here, but I’m paid well enough for what I do. There are many people who work far harder than I do in much more challenging environments for far less money. I’m thinking especially of the caring and support sectors, but there are many others. This was brought home to me — literally — during the pandemic. While so many lost their jobs, were unable to work for a time, or continued working under increasingly onerous and dangerous conditions, my job was safe and I could work from home.

Nor have I hated working here. Far from it. I have some great memories and have enjoyed good working relationships with almost everyone I’ve encountered. I can point to things I’ve done that added value and contributed greatly to the achievements of my team, the organisation, and the people we support. I know I’ve made a difference. I’m especially proud of helping establish the mental health team a few years ago and securing buy-in from our then chief exec and senior management team to apply for the Time to Change Employer Pledge Scheme. In truth it was an easy sell, but it meant a lot to have their support for what we wanted to do. Presenting our CEO with the certificate of attainment at a corporate event a year later was a moment I treasure.

If I’m grateful for my job, happy enough in it, and feel I’ve made — and continue to make — a meaningful contribution, what’s the problem? It comes down to feeling I’ve not made the most of my opportunities. American journalist, critic, and women’s rights activist Margaret Fuller asserted that “Men for the sake of getting a living forget to live.” That’s not exactly true in my case. I take my work seriously, but I’ve not focused on my career to the exclusion of everything else. Rather, I’ve taken the path of least resistance — the next easiest step — almost all my life, in work and generally. I’ve rarely followed my passion or my dreams, mostly because I’ve not known what I wanted. I envy people who have a clear sense of who they are and what they want to achieve. Mostly, I’ve settled for wanting what I had or seemed within easy reach.

A few years ago I enrolled in a series of mentoring sessions at work. I was delighted that my then chief exec agreed to be my mentor. We got on famously and I enjoyed our sessions, but they didn’t help me much. That’s no reflection on my mentor. She could hardly help me move towards my goals when I was incapable of identifying them. I know I disappointed her — and others — in that regard.

I’ve always been this way. I remember a similar period of uncertainty and disillusionment in the late 1980s when I lived and worked in London. I was part way through working towards my PhD and lost all motivation and direction. I applied for a wide range of jobs, including a Braille translator and art conservator, but ended up taking the easiest next step and remaining in academic research. It’s not that I necessarily regret the steps I’ve taken, but I’d feel better about them if I’d exercised a degree of agency occationally.

My life and career are far from over, of course. I’m sixty-two not ninety-two! That said, the end of my working career is approaching. I’ve no clear idea when would be best to retire, or what to do with afterwards. I could choose to leave any time, but that requires making a decision. It’s easier to just continue turning up. I imagine that’s what I’ll do for at least a few more years. Maybe I’ll get another shout-out at thirty-five years service, or when I finally leave. Will there still be anyone there who knows me? Not just the projects I’ve worked on but who I am.

These thirty years passed almost without me noticing. I doubt I’ll be graced with another thirty. Twenty, maybe. What do I want to achieve? How do I want to live? I’m reminded of an excerpt from the British television sitcom Fawlty Towers in which the inept hotel manager Basil Fawlty experiences a rare moment of insight.

[Talking to himself] Zhoooom! What was that?
That was your life, mate.
Oh, that was quick. Do I get another?
Sorry, mate. That’s your lot.

One day, it won’t be a workplace shout-out on a Teams call, but my final eulogy. What will they say about me at my funeral, and will they get it right? What would I like them to say? These are questions for another day, but at least — at last — I’m asking them.


Photo by Martin Reisch at Unsplash.


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