Why we work -- and keep working

Here are five reasons: (1) The paycheck. (2) Fulfillment. (3) Sociability. (4) Dignity. (5) The paycheck. And there are hundreds more as workers stay on the job well into their senior years.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Chester Barker has been giving buzz cuts at Barker’s Barber Shop in Pittsboro, N.C., for 56 years.

Like a lot of young people, I found my first indoor job at a supermarket. There were probably 35 employees at the local Handy Andy, many the same age as me (16). Pay was $1.10 an hour. I could scarcely believe that at the end of my first week I had mastered basic bagging and shelf stocking, met a new set of friends (did I mention I was 16?), and had cash in my wallet.

After several decades and a dozen or so jobs, I’d describe my work life as having been interesting and rewarding, a place where friendships have been forged and skills acquired – even if some days have dragged on and been not altogether pleasant. Does that sound familiar? For most people, work not only occupies the bulk of our days, it practically defines us. 

Work is the difference we make over a lifetime. Each of us accumulates a body of work that is more than bullet points on our résumé. Our work includes what we contribute in the home, in the development of our talents, in the refinement of intellect and growth of character. Work is about improving ourselves and helping make the world a little better as a partner, parent, friend, or citizen. Plus, there’s that paycheck.

Is it any wonder then that, as Mark Trumbull’s Monitor Weekly cover story on the rise of the “silver-collar” workforce details, many people are rethinking the convention of laboring from their 20s to their 60s and then abruptly breaking off to spend the rest of their days lolling in a hammock or puttering in a garden?

Much of the rethinking is born out of necessity. The values of 401(k)s and family homes have taken a huge hit in recent years. Pensions are disappearing. Social Security and Medicare are not the sure things they once were. And for people concerned about the cost of assisted living and hospital visits, fixed income can be a risky financial plan.

Now take all of those factors and multiply by 79 million – the number of baby boomers heading into retirement over the next two decades. As Alicia Munnell, who directs the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, puts it: “This is a new level, and we will be staying here. The United States, like many other developed countries, will have a high ratio of retirees to workers.” 

This situation can be ameliorated by people staying in the labor force longer. More workers per retiree will increase national output, reduce the burden on the young, and increase retirement security of the old.   And Professor Munnell notes, “As a human being, we know that work makes life easier. It gives structure, a social environment, friends – it has a lot of positive aspects.” 

Mark explores those factors, paying close attention to what older workers see as the positive aspects of remaining on the job – the desire to contribute, to stay connected, to coach. There are a lot of “to be sures” to this trend. Older workers sometimes are seen as blocking younger ones. Older workers may not be as adaptable or energetic as they once were. Older workers often need flexible hours and special equipment.

While there are many reasons for the silver-collar rise, the underlying one is probably this: The hammock may be tempting, but deep down we don’t want to stop making a difference. That’s why we work. Plus, there’s that paycheck.

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About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

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