The other morning, VOA’s Central News Division chief handed me a certificate, “suitable for framing” as they say, that noted a milestone — hard evidence that careers are marathons, not sprints. It, and a handsome eagle pin that went with it, acknowledged my reaching 25 years of government service, all of it here at VOA.
“Long time,” I told her. “Been here longer,” she replied, adding her thanks and congratulations.
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that this got me thinking about my life of work. And even more, about others’.
I think of my late father-in-law, a gifted clarinetist — the best in all of Dayton, Ohio, according to accounts — who gave up all but part-time musical gigs to take a monotonous civilian job at the air force base in town. A witty, creative man, he hated every day as a bureaucrat but kept at it for more than 40 years because he knew music in a middlin’-sized town like Dayton was too unstable a calling for a husband and father of two young girls.
I think of former colleagues from my years in commercial broadcasting — an occasionally glamorous but notoriously fickle and ruthless business in which gifted people are dismissed just because a new boss blows into town, or because a programming guru half a continent away declares a change in the station’s format. There’s no need for many news people at a station that, on the stroke of midnight one day, switches to playing golden oldie tunes or “bubble gum” music.
Like curs kicked to the curb, young and resilient broadcasters who are tossed aside pick themselves up, move themselves and often others to new places and stations that may be a rung higher on the career ladder, and start anew. Before they know it, many who are in sales or are “talent” — a half-mocking word for disc jockeys and talk-show hosts — have grown old (50 is ancient in that business) and find there’s no place on the ladder for them at all.
I think of the people who’ve been here at VOA not just 25 but 40 or more years. And there are a few. “Lifers,” we call them. People often judge them harshly. They should retire and enjoy life, their friends say, not be slaves to their work to the day that somebody wheels them out on a gurney. Their critics don’t really know these people, of course, don’t know what drives them or where they get fulfillment and satisfaction.
Rocks of Age
I just got the figures to back up my suspicion from the previous paragraph, sent to me by Jack Welch, one of our VOA executives: “We have about 450 employees who have been here for 25 or more years, 200 of whom have been here for 30 or more years, and 20 for 40 or more – so you have a lot of older siblings.”
Makes me feel like a spring chicken. One of the reasons we have so many people who have made long, long careers here is VOA’s high (around 40 percent) number of foreign-born journalists who populate many of our language services. They stick around not just for the work, the benefits, or the relationships built over the years, but also for another pragmatic reason: There aren’t too many places in the United States where a primarily Urdu- or Swahili- or Thai-speaking journalist can find comparable work.
Now back to our regularly scheduled blog.
Work for pay defines some people. Puttering around the garden, re-shingling the roof, building a model airplane is not the same. Making a contribution to a work product — perhaps even making a difference in the community or nation or world, to use a shopworn cliché — is hard-wired in most high achievers.
I think back to the “mid-career” seminar that I attended 15 years ago, in which our agency brought in former employees to explain that retirement is not always the romp that it’s cracked up to be.
One speaker described a meticulous supervisor, forced out by a mandatory retirement-age provision. He went home and immediately began reorganizing the household. As you might expect, this did not sit well with his wife — the former queen of all she surveyed in that sphere. When she caught him alphabetizing the soup cans, she ordered him to go find a volunteer position somewhere, just to get him out from under foot.
Another tale was gloomier. Every weekday for 35 years, save for holidays and vacation days away, a man had risen from his nightly slumber, “dressed for success” in a neatly pressed business suit, eaten a proper breakfast, caught the 7:12 a.m. bus and the 7:45 Metro train to work, put in his 8 hour, 45-minute day (the 45 minutes for a modest lunch that he packed), and then scurried to grab seats on the 6 p.m Metro and the 6:30 bus home.
This continued until he was 70 years old. But what his wife at home did not know was that he had retired two years earlier. Because he felt psychologically inseparable from his work, he had continued his daily routine after his last day on the job, right down to fixing the bologna sandwiches and Thermoses of milk for his lunchbox.
He’d shave and dress for “work,” travel downtown as always, then read newspapers and feed the pigeons from a park bench all day before riding the same 6:00 subway home.
Simon and Garfunkel could write a song about such a person!
I can’t stop thinking, either, about the “discouraged workers” about whom I wrote in March. These are people who lost their jobs in the economic turndown, especially in ravaged industrial states like Michigan and Ohio and Pennsylvania. Try as they might, they cannot find others.
They’re “managing” as best they can — “managing” in quotes because they’re not managing well at all — taking minimum-wage or part-time jobs, moving in with relatives, sucking dry whatever savings they’ve accrued, and hoping and praying for better days. Unless and until they catch our eye by hurting themselves or others, or get in our way as homeless beggars, we treat them as statistics if we think of them at all.
I think about “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” newcomers here and on other job sites around the world. They are sharp, talented, eager to achieve and please, anxious to “make a name for themselves” and to get ahead.
At a seminar that I attended last year, a few young people were frank about their frustration with some older workers, whom they see as “out of touch,” “stuck in a rut,” “resistant to change,” “impossible to motivate.”
They meant, without spelling it out: “Get with the new wave or move aside. Make way for progress. Out with old ways and ideas.”
But I believe that healthy organizations mine the best from everybody, old and young, mixing a powerful potion from the accumulated energy and idealism, wisdom and life lessons, skills and suggestions of us all. Not every old goat has lost the desire to compete, achieve, and learn.
I think of those whose work kept rising to ever-more-inspirational levels. Civil-rights pioneer and martyr Martin Luther King, Jr., for one. He once said, “A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better.”
Twenty-five years is almost precisely one-third of an American male’s current life expectancy. I and others like me have spent more time “working for the man,” as the saying goes, than sleeping or enjoying our families and leisure during that time.
Some of my 40-year-veteran colleagues have reported to our headquarters building on more than half the days of their lives.
I doubt that many young coffee-bar baristas or restaurant greeters, highway workers or file clerks, hot-shot lawyers or sports stars — or gung-ho broadcasters, for that matter — could imagine doing such a thing.
My second father-in-law loved to tell me and anyone else who would listen: “Hard work never hurt anyone.”
Apparently he was right.
I think of you, my readers around the world, too, and wonder about your feelings about the meaning, rewards, and drawbacks of work. Write and tell me.
(The old guy in neon, earlier in this tale, is former U.S. president Harry S. Truman. If he were still alive, he’d be 127 years old, and considering how spry he was in his 80s, he might still be working somewhere!)
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Gurney. A stretcher on wheels, used to transport living patients and, on occasion, those who have passed away.
Meticulous. Detailed, careful, perhaps a bit fussy.