(Photo: National Archives, Flip Schulke)
Once upon a time in a mid-sized accounting firm in suburban New Jersey, a teenage girl sat in a windowless conference room performing a mind-numbing task. This task entailed removing outdated pages from a massive set of tax code binders (about 40 volumes, each weighing five pounds) and replacing those pages with updated versions. The sheets were tissue-thin, impossible to separate without tearing and capable of inflicting the wickedest of paper cuts.
That was my first paying job and the first time I could officially be labeled a “working person.” Now, nearly four decades and a few career changes later, a new label might better describe my status as a working person: Retired.
If I’m not between projects and I’m not retired, what am I?
Ugh. I don’t like that word and I’m not the only one I know struggling with it. Several contemporaries have recently bid goodbye to long-term careers on their way to the unknown next chapter in their working life. They seem as confused as I am as to how to describe this in-between place, but the “R” label feels wrong. Retired people are old. I am not. Retired people play golf and bridge and take midday strolls with other retired people. I do none of that. In fact, I still work at writing almost every day. I still strive to be creative and productive, just as I did for the past 30-something years. The only difference now — and it’s a big one — is I don’t get paid.
But if that’s the only difference, why do I have trouble answering this innocuous question from friends and (former) colleagues: “What are you working on these days?”
I find myself chuckling uneasily as I reply, “I’m retired…for now.”
Why choose the word “retired” if it makes me uncomfortable? I could just say I’m between projects. However, that’s not true since I’ve made a (somewhat) conscious decision to stop looking for or accepting the type of work I used to do. So, if I’m not between projects and I’m not retired, what am I?
And why do I add the “for now” qualifier to my answer? Am I afraid I’ll be judged for ceasing to contribute to my family’s bottom line? After all, I am able bodied and my mind is still nimble (most days). This question makes me think of my many friends who left the workforce when they had children. I can’t remember judging a single one of them for that choice or ever considering the adjective “retired” as a descriptor for their stay-at-home status. Those women decided to focus their energy and hours doing something else for no pay. So have I.
Perhaps I fear I’ll be deemed a snob for being fortunate enough to stop working while so many don’t have that luxury. To that point, I experience a daily wave of guilt that I’m able to sit at my desk in my sunny apartment and write about whatever I choose with no regard to remuneration. I know how very lucky I am. I also know that dwelling on the lot of exploited coal miners and bathroom attendants and the involuntarily unemployed doesn’t help them or me. The fact that I am or am not retired is meaningless to everyone except my family and me. If it’s not, it should be.
Another suspicion I have regarding the “R” label is that no one will hire me in the future if I definitively declare my status as retired. As long as I keep a toe in the pen-for-hire pool, interesting projects may come my way. For example, my last paying gig was editing the introduction and epilogue for a book about gay and transgender cabaret performers in Havana. It was fascinating and I want more work like that — even though I’m not hustling to find it.
Lately, I’ve questioned whether the work I produce is of less importance since it has no market value. Upon reflection, the answer is no. One year into “retirement,” my work feels important, indeed, to me and apparently to others. This has been the most satisfying period of my writing life, due in part to the close-to-my-heart subjects I’ve tackled. Just as gratifying has been sharing my essays and analyzing the thoughtful responses some of them have elicited. By those measures, I feel anything but retired.
For me and, I suspect, for others at this juncture, this period feels more like a railroad stop than the depot. We’re not sure what comes next but we’re certain that something does. This is merely our intermezzo, a break between the major acts of our work life.
Obviously, it’s this label thing that’s tripping me up, so I’m retiring the “R” word…for now.