Work is not a job, and the web of life

Over at Retirement Investing Today there’s an intriguing differentiation between work and jobs. I confess that I never thought about either until mid-teens, and conflated the two. Let’s hear it from RIT

Soon after joining it became very obvious that while there were some pieces of meaningful work (where I define work as something you do for purpose) the vast majority of what I was going to be doing was just a job (which I define as something you do because you need the money) and right now I don’t need a job.

You know how listening to someone speak, somewhere in the back of your mind there is a guy with a tape recorder taping the incoming soundstream1. Every so often you have a hey I didn’t quite get moment and yell down to the guy in the depths of your brain “Hey, roll tape and gimme that again”

Well, there must be a similar process in reading, I had gotten past that section on to

Living it again enabled me to see that the role, my industry and my own needs had changed beyond recognition and at some point, much like the boiled frog, my meaningful work / career had actually predominantly become just a job with me just not noticing.

before it occurred to me that this was a way of looking at work that was seriously new to me and something I had missed through a lifetime of work 😉

RIT approach to work and investing is in some ways the yin to my yang, or perhaps the other way round. Anyway, he is a steady and rational investor of the passive kind. He had sufficient overview of his industry to lay out the distant early warning system that picked up the sound of incoming thunder early enough for him to plan an exit strategy

I originally pursued FIRE as back in 2007 I saw some changes starting to occur that made me think my job at the time would eventually be outsourced to a low cost country.

Whereas I discovered I was in trouble after The Firm took a stake in an outsource and my work turned into a job (in RIT’s parlance) and then started to become seriously shit.

When a Job is not Work

I confess I never sought meaning from work, this is still something I don’t get. What I wanted was for it to be interesting and above all to be enough to live on. I saw leisure time as the time to chase meaning. It has not escaped me that this seems to be an atypical approach to work nowadays. Perhaps it comes from a working-class background, people don’t carry bricks or fix cars as a source of meaning in their lives. These were jobs, though people still think of it in terms of going to work.

So I am intrigued by RIT’s taxonomy, and perhaps what I called a requirement for work to be ‘interesting’ was what many people call ‘meaning’.

Certainly as time went by micromanagement became more and more a feature of the workplace although I rose a few levels up the greasy pole. When I started at The Firm I could sign off up to £500 of spend, when I left two decades later and some layers up the tree I had to get return train tickets authorised in advance to London (where the project was). There was much more job in my work.

A company doing white-collar work used to be a group of people working together to a common goal, there was more leeway and co-operation. Nowadays it’s a bunch of work units performance managed to an inch of their lives, measured individually against following processes. No surprise that there’s less esprit de corps then 😉

RIT’s experience and description of retiring and returning to work and then leaving it again confirms my prejudice that once you walk away  from a professional job you become pretty much unemployable in that sort of thing.

The work is all right, it is the job part that sucks. Filling in timesheets, getting authorisation for spend, all hands events where lying bastards lie blatantly to you and it’s not the done thing to call them out on it or ask “why is this going to work this time when it failed the last three times it was tried here?”

Those locked into the hamster wheel make the best of a bad thing I guess and say they get meaning from this and good luck to them. An Ermine in The Firm would be a very dangerous thing indeed, because a company runs on a shared belief system that does not necessarily correspond with reality, and it doesn’t need troublemakers highlighting the dissonances.

There seems to be an increasing trend to corporate belief in the principles of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret2 – the current UK government seems to also be a fan of the modus operandi of wishing for what you want really really hard and it will happen. Perhaps there is truth in “Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad“.

Companies avoid dissent in the ranks against the obvious stupidity of the latest management fad with the simple threat of economic sanction – do it our way and don’t rock the boat else you’ll lose you job. The financially independent think to themselves ‘so what’ and also ask themselves how they could better use their time.

Others say contracting is the way and many people make a success of that. You don’t have to buy into the corporate ethos. I could never see that as a reliable source of income of the sort I’d have the balls to raise a mortgage against. I wasn’t even aware of it as a possibility for the first decade or so of my working life, BPO wasn’t a big part of the companies I worked for at the time. Mrs Ermine, who comes from a different background, has no trouble with the notion. It ain’t me.

When Work is not a Job

… it’s called volunteering. Presumably nobody volunteers for things they think are without worth, and the great advantage volunteers have over employees is they can walk off the job at any time with no downside. As an aside, that can make managing volunteers really tough. When the task in hand is obvious – like clear this brushwood, then one volunteer is better than ten pressed men. And employees are pressed – they show up because they need the money 😉

But when the job is obscure, or controversial, like shooting deer3 in woodland, or will have a result in the long run, or just lacks feelgood factor, well, give me paid staff any time.

There’s a feelgood story about these deer in Captain’s Wood, but I have been sworn to secrecy about deer in other wildlife places… If it’s a dirty job, then use staff, not volunteers.

By RIT’s definition, though not by mine4, a while ago an Ermine did about a week of work. I can’t say the process agrees with me, getting up regularly for a particular time malarkey isn’t to my taste these days. It was a long video job shooting unpredictable stuff under awkward light. You have to make a lot of decisions quickly as an event starts5, because professionals can get away with zooming the camera in vision but I am not talented enough to do that, though I can track action serviceably enough with a sort of fluid head.

Much has improved in this biz since I worked as a studio engineer at TV Centre in the 1980s, the cameras are sharper, better, smaller, lighter. The combination of optical stabilisation and software post-stabilisation makes handholding without a Steadicam feasible6, indeed I was amazed I could raise the camera on a monopod four feet above my head and still get a usable result. So I learned a combination of practical stuff and people stuff, and hopefully the result will make people happy.

The web of life

I am far too conservative to make RIT’s sort of move. The place you worked is not necessarily a good place to retire – London is the classic case in point. It’s easy to feel poor there as the joint fills up with the super-rich. Simple economics also points that way – people congregate where there is a higher density of well-paid work. This tends to push the price of accommodation and some services up. We had someone from New York stay with us and they were amazed at the low cost of wine. Even American wine, which is illogical, it’s come a long way and we have significant alcohol taxes.  Her perception was that the discount was a lot more than the 20% due to the fall in the pound. Presumably stores in NYC can charge higher prices because the market will bear them.

I stayed where I had worked for several years before moving westwards. Although the move was logical for someone interested in ancient stones and occasional hillwalking, we had commitments and a retiree should take a lot of time to ponder their web of life before moving. Before we moved we had made contacts in this area and taken on some common projects, expanding who we know. I personally think with contacts that matter you need to have physical connections with – see them, walk with them, do things together, eat and drink together, celebrate significant events. In the flesh.

During your working life these connections are easier to make7. You usually are in the same place as the people you work with, and share breaks with them. People who have young children also connect with other people with similar age children, and coincidentally this tends to be in your working life due to the vagaries of human biology. As an (early) retiree you are probably past those opportunities, so you need to take a lot more care about moving. The aspect of who is as important as where.

The ‘nearer to the grandchildren’ trap

Beware one trap regarding the who and where, though it seems to be particularly for those around 60. The first time I saw this I though that was just tough luck, but I’ve seen it several times now. Some people move away from an existing web of friends and acquaintances and somewhere they know to be closer to their children and new grandchildren. It all sounds idyllic, and they can help greatly with childcare in those pre-school years etc. But while those ties are strong, it seems to start unravelling roughly when the grandchildren start going to secondary school and being more independent.

You don’t want to be stuck in a place where you have no other friends and are too far away to see your previous friends who have drifted away as you start entering the hazard of having lower mobility or not being able to drive, that seems a very lonely row to hoe. Particularly if you are unlucky enough for your children to have to move for work, as can happen. So if you are going to do that, make non-family connections in the area a priority too. Do things with other people, seek shared interests.

Non-family connections matter too

Modern work is inimical to non-family connections in many ways. For starters, you move away from your home town, often for university, very likely for work. So far so good, as you are still in the early phases of life where making connections is easier. You may make connections through work or children, but compared to previous generations jobs are less stable, and people move for work more often. Childcare seems to take up more energy that it used to do. Work oozes past the 9 to 5, seeping through smartphones and computers into a low-level background load.

This is a hit for very early retirees, because their peer group is largely still at work. I don’t know what the answer is. Moving to an area where there is less employment because it’s cheaper may not be wise, because this tends to skew the age distribution too. Philip Greenspun tackles this in where to live for early retirees.

You can, of course, take the digital nomad route – you can reduce your costs and see a lot of the world that way. Great if it is for you. I did a reasonable amount of travelling for work for a few years. About once a month was great. I was single, and could extend the journeys with some extra vacation allowance and have many fond memories.

More than that and it became wearing. Being ill on the road is particularly tough – and this was only things like the flu and gutrot.

I can’t imagine a more alienating and lonely experience than travelling all the time, but it seems to have a great following, particularly with Millennials. A chacun son goût…  I would suggest at least say try it for six months before building it into your future permanently. It seems to work for some.

All this is tougher to get right for the very early retiree. You have to live with the results for longer, you are making some connections many people make in the workplace, and you are an atypical retiree. That is not a reason not to do it, but it’s a task that needs more getting right that simply for an early retiree. People look at me as an early retiree and assume I was lucky. Whereas if I were 40 they would file me under the category ‘alien being’.

Even as an introvert with less need for human connection than average, this much I know. Early retirement is not all about the money. Humans are social creatures. Make connections, and do things with your fellow people. Having more time to do that is one of the gifts of not working.

  1. apparently this tape recorder guy in the depths of your head is a real thing, a bit like the job VT did for TV studios when I worked there – they were banished to the basement of TV Centre. So says the Guardian:  “Audiobooks, by contrast, exploit our “echoic memory”, which is the process by which sound information is stored for up to four seconds while we wait for the next sounds to make sense of the whole.” 
  2. I have never read The Secret but it seems a take on the earlier fad of  cosmic ordering. Humans are storytellers and to some extent you do make your own world, but there are limitations to how far that will take you. If you want to step beyond those limitations then you probably have to dedicate time and effort to improving your art of changing consciousness through acts of will. Even with that there are going to be hard limits somewhere ;) 
  3. I have never seen Bambi and don’t see anything wrong with shooting deer, but it’s a real tough one for conservation organisations who really don’t want the public to know they shoot deer to stop them browsing new growth and generally buggering up forest management. 
  4. I wasn’t paid, so it’s not work in my book. But it was interesting, so it sort of falls under RIT’s definition. Certainly wasn’t a job… 
  5. Too many people tried this previously on automatic settings, which looks ghastly in tough light. But on manual, you get to rack levels yourself, in real time. In my TV days there was someone solely dedicated to racking and colour balance 
  6. There are now gizmos you can buy that use motors and gimbals to do the chicken-head thing and I may get me one of these. Paradoxically I had an easier time holding the monopod at the bottom with the camera raised over my head than with the damn thing on the ground and holding the head. Either I improved my art over time or there is something weird going on. Bird necks are amazing, I once videoed a hunting kestrel through a telescope, and the bird’s eyes were held steady it seemed the rest of the bird body moved around in the wind. 
  7. This article posits a counterfactual for millenials, I don’t know if this is a peculiar pathology of London where most journalists seem to be, because the millenials I see don’t seem to suffer such a shocking dearth of friends. I do agree that when your cohort start having children is a massive nuke for school/college friends if you are child-free. You do start seeing some of these again in their  mid-fifties for some of the reasons this article takes the piss out of Fern Britton