The Middle-Aged Guide to Growing Up: Working Late

Basically, growing up, this was just another Monday evening at home…

I’m a Boomer, born when men still wore fedoras and women wore the New Look. I grew up in Connecticut in a town full of Mad Men (the real thing, Madison Avenue ad execs) and airline pilots. It was a nice upper-middle class colonial town. Its claim to fame was the General Washington had ridden through after a nasty little battle in which Benedict Arnold commanded the colonial forces (pre-treason) and had his horse shot out from under him. There was a riffle of excitement when the local archaeologist identified the lawn in front of the gracious house on Main Street where the horse was buried. He was promptly sued by the homeowner for suggesting a traitors horse was buried on his property. Being the town archaeologist in a perfectly preserved colonial New England village can have its risks, but it must have been a fun job.

I had a lot of fun jobs. My very first, while I was in school, was gravedigger. The only grave I dug was the previous gravediggers. One hundred cubic feet of earth (and rocks and roots) by hand. It took about three days. My next job was similar, working in a nursery, planting gardens for clients in town. I developed a special skill at planting trees which survived and thrived. There are stout, mature trees I planted all over the Quebec town I spent my teens and 20s in, and I visit them when Im in the Townships.

Then I was a carpenter, assembling beer fridges. I drove to BC in a van like every other Canadian youth in the early 70s and worked as a timber cruiser (never a tree planter, that was the for the truly desperate). I flew in countless choppers over countless snow-capped peaks at countless dawns, hot bacon sandwiches from the hotel in my pack, snowshoes packed. In summer, it was like swimming through greenery, occasionally seeing a tree as big as a small European country. I made a point of passing them by so they wouldn’t be included in the timber count.

I went to Central America and ran a hotel for a year while the owner was in Miami dealing with his divorce. I ran a bilingual theatre group in a resort town and I toured a Shakespeare show around Mexico. I came back to Canada and worked as an actor for 5 years, then joined a polling firm, where I worked my way up from coder to Vice President.

I had my mid-life crisis, quit and set up my own firm. Ive been doing consulting for almost 15 years and Ive never been happier. I get up at the crack, sleep all afternoon and go to bed in the wee. And I get a lot of work done. I’m more productive now at almost 60 than I ever was at 40. That’s because I love what I do, and wouldn’t want to do anything else. The problem is, I identify so strongly with my work now that Im not really happy doing anything else. If I’m not working, its usually time for a nap.

This is a problem Boomers are increasingly going to face. While our capacity (and desire) for work is only increasing, the market for our services is going to shrink. There’s only so many consultant jobs out there, and while the corporate world is offloading many managerial and clerical functions, and there is no real bar to older people doing the work, there will come a time when 20 seventy-five year old consultants will be bidding on the same job. Lots of skill and experience available, but will there be the demand?

A joke story in the satirical paper The Onion says Content Creators Outnumber Consumers 2000 to 1, and there’s a germ of truth here. Were all becoming bloggers, diarists, opinion makers, and we all consume content, whether its news or opinion or fiction. The question is whether this activity can be monetized. North America is increasingly less focused on manufacturing and more on communication, and people who are good at this include us Boomers, but there’s a lot of us.

Some will gladly drop the burden of work and golf their days out. Some will become world explorers, some will give up, but most, invested in their working lives, will want to continue working and it will be important for social harmony and public health that they have the opportunity to do this. In a country in which a basic annual minimum income replaced all social supports, we would be putting every citizen on salary, and volunteerism would thrive. It may be the only way there’s going to be enough work for all.