When I was in my 50’s I told friends that I felt like I could just snap my fingers and start a new program, project, or plan. Having done just that in a large, vertically integrated health care system, a great family planning organization, and a successful national effort to create legislative policy changes, my statement was not just bravado. I had some evidence. But I wasn’t only speaking about the visible proofs of my record; I was also talking about what I felt.
In contrast to my experience of my parents, who by 55 were regularly talking about retirement, I was looking for what was next. Where would my challenge be? The best part of these feelings at the time is that they showed me that I was energized about life and committed to making a difference in the world. The downsides were few, but still present. Was I crazy, grandiose, in denial (as some friends and colleagues suggested)? Fortunately, I learned that the lack of close role models or first-hand accounts of others like me was not an indication that I was indeed alone. It just meant that I needed to do some leg work.
Work. Many of us have a weird relationship to the concept of work and, by extension, workers. Somewhere along the line we have come to pathologize both. Workaholic, overwork, burned-out — all of these suggest something is wrong with work. And, if we enjoy work, find it satisfying and fulfilling, we are seen as deluded. I fully agree that greed-induced work is often not a great choice of ways to spend a life, particularly if the work is not fulfilling. But the opposite of that scenario is not a refusal to work; rather it is different work that is more fulfilling.
Being a gay man in this era of AIDS reinforced a couple of connections I have had to work since childhood. The first: Don’t just stand there; do something. I have vivid early memories of learning to clean, make my bed, iron my clothes, garden, deliver papers and more. Some of these were connected with a quid pro quo — “We will be able to go to window shopping when the work is done.” Others were connected to a sense of accomplishment — “Doesn’t that look better now that you have tilled the soil? The plants seem happier.” In both cases, the work led to a sense of achievement; that achievement became a powerful motivator for me and my siblings. The work itself became satisfying. Not a burden, but rewarding. Not the opposite of fun, but also fun. This perspective came in handy for organizing programs, developing organizations, being a buddy to someone with HIV disease, staying up late listening.
The second connection to work that has been reinforced by the AIDS epidemic is all work is good. In my family a toilet was just a toilet; the garbage, garbage. They were not disgusting if they were cleaned or taken out. The work of cleaning was not someone else’s. It was ours. Now that I lead a public health organization, I still take the dish towels home on weekends to wash them. I wipe down the surfaces in the restrooms after I use them. In short, that work is just as good as the work of writing budgets, meeting with donors, and hosting events. My decision to address work that needs doing is more often based on what someone else may need to learn than what I don’t feel like doing; teaching is my work, too. There are so many benefits from this perspective that work is good that I keep it. One benefit that particularly stands out to me is my ability to see what is possible through first-hand experience. Another benefit is that it allows me to consider how unjust systems impair worker performance.
With my history and enthusiasm for life and work, the thought of retirement as a destination spot in my life’s trajectory is foreign indeed. As I age and work differently, I nonetheless expect to work, to contribute, and to achieve my goals for myself and my community.