The Joy of Work

This post explores the meaning of work in the context of successful aging and is inspired by the information found on a website of the same name. It is a follow-up to my earlier post: Successful Aging.

In physics, work is done when a force applied to an object moves the object. When a force moves an object for a distance, work is what is done on the object by the force. The amount of work done is the amount of energy transferred to the object.

In real life, work is pretty much the same thing (which is fortunate for physicists). Work is when you do something. The amount of work you do often depends on how much energy you put into it.  As members of the labor force, workers put in their time and energy to get things done, to move the ball forward and make progress.

Now that I am retired, I still spend time and energy to get things done, but I don’t usually call it work, and I don’t get paid for it. It seems to me that there ought to be another word for the work that retirees do. And what happened to the ball?

For retirees, work is something usually associated with the past tense. Work is what I used to do. I made my living by doing work—back then. My working life ended with retirement—but, hey, I am still breathing here. If my working life is over, how can work contribute to successful aging in retirement?

Work has other benefits aside from a paycheck. Work provides structure to life and supplies purpose and social interaction in addition to income. Work is a means to acquire skills and expertise. Association with others through work is a way to begin and to build relationships that often extend beyond the workplace. Work defines roles and dictates social status. Work serves as a framework for satisfaction and self-esteem. It offers a place of belonging.

Not all jobs are equally rewarding, of course. Satisfying work can be a source of meaning and a crucible for personal values. At its worst, though, work can be plain drudgery; at its best, work carries the promise and possibility for achieving success, however that is defined.

I feel pretty good about my working life, despite its various twists and turns. My work gave me a sense of self-esteem, pride and satisfaction. I felt that I was engaged in something meaningful. I did not have a perfect career. I may have earned less than my worth and received less recognition than I deserved. Nevertheless, I had a successful working life.

Even if I achieved success in my career, what happens now? Retirees cannot survive in the past tense.

For some, retirement may be a rude awakening rather than a dreamed-for reward. They feel that their lives are empty without the purposeful activity of work. Retirement lacks the structure that kept them engaged, and they become bored. As a result, many retired people seek job opportunities after retirement, at least part-time. Part-time employment in the aftermath of a successful career may be a means to gradually ease into full retirement status.

As my retirement day approached, I envisioned some kind of continuing work in my future, perhaps as a consultant or part-time employee. Surely my experience would count as a resource and my well-honed job skills would be considered valuable. I was available and receptive to offers of part-time employment. By keeping my hand in as part of the labor force, I could continue help move the ball forward, while easing my transition into retirement. But it is a good thing that I was not counting on it.

No job; no joy. It is sometimes hard not to feel a bit rejected and unappreciated as a retiree. Sometimes you suspect that those colleagues who wished you well as you went out the door might not have been all that sorry to see you go.

The achievement of business goals, the mastery of job skills, the attainment of high position in the work organization—these and other benchmarks were the criteria of success in your career. In the absence of the structure that a job used to provide, how is success to be achieved in retirement? The work you did in your career held the promise of job satisfaction and reward. Likewise, the work you do in retirement can hold a promise of life satisfaction and joy. Just as a new word is needed for work in retirement, there must be new benchmarks for success.

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