Early retirement.

September 15, 2009

Early retirement. Funemployment. Work holiday. It has many monikers–my favourite being Freedom 35–and I joined its ranks on April 1st. (No fooling.) At first I was shocked, horrified, tearful. I couldn’t believe that I, like so many others, was now a casualty of our economic state. But mostly, I was embarrassed. Because I was good at my job. And I possessed the misconception that only people who were bad at their jobs got laid off. I learned the hard way that this wasn’t true. It was a sad day for my employer to see me go, because I was competent, well-liked, and a hard-worker. But their hands were tied. The decision was driven by the credit crunch.

My first instinct was to find something new, immediately. I was panicked. I had started working when I was 15–serving up popcorn and potato chips at my community pool’s canteen. And I had worked ever since. I had never been unemployed. And in a need to define my self-worth and boost my recently bruised ego through my ability to successfully land another job, I applied for the first one I found on Charity Village. Within a week I had an interview. It was a respectable job with decent pay doing more fundraising for a not-for-profit. It seemed likely that I would be hired. And this prospect alleviated my building sense of dread of being unemployed in a recession.

But as the interview approached, I questioned whether or not I wanted the job or if I even wanted to be a fundraiser. I wondered if applying for the first job I found was just a knee-jerk reaction to my lay off. But, in these tough financial times, it seemed irresponsible to turn down work. I was brought up to believe that to be a good person, you had to be a contributing member of society–and this meant possessing gainful employment. And I grew up in a community in Northern Ontario where work was scarce–people were desperate for employment. Hundreds of people would apply for a single cashier’s position at Tim Horton’s. If you had a job you were one of the lucky ones. And if you turned down a job, you were an idiot.

But I wondered if it was equally foolish to take something just for the sake of having a job. Did I like direct market fundraising? Yes. Did I love it? Hesitation followed by a reluctant no. But it seemed self-indulgent and childish to think loving a job should be criteria for doing it. It just didn’t fit with what my parents raised me to believe: you worked because you had to; if you didn’t work, you were a deadbeat.

My parents were happy with their careers–but both say if they could do it all over again, they would do it differently. My mother would have been an elementary school teacher instead of a nurse. My father would have been a carpenter instead of a teacher. But loving their jobs wasn’t part of the decision matrix when choosing a career. (In fact, the word decision matrix probably wasn’t even part of their vocabulary.) You took a job because the pay was good and you didn’t mind the work. End of story.

It seemed so selfish and Gen-X/Gen-Yish to think I needed to love my work. But it is true that you spend nearly 1/3 of your adult life at work. And people who love their jobs, seem, I don’t know, so happy and productive. But I think the decision for me was made harder by the fact that I didn’t even know what I wanted to do. If I had a clear and defined dream of “I want to be X”, then it would be a no brainer. I would become an X. But I was never one of those kids who knew from age six what I wanted to be when I grew up. As a result, I’ve had a lot of jobs. And a lot of weird jobs. I’ve robbed baby billy goats of their manhood. I’ve lathered my hands in tubs of margarine to pick spruce cones. I’ve taught six-month old Japanese infants how to speak English–or at least I tried. I’ve written books on places I’ve never even set foot in. The list goes on. And I came by most of my employment accidentally–it just fell into my lap or I stumbled upon it and thought, “this might be kind of neat to do”. But now that I’m in my thirties, it seemed a little immature to keep up this employment bouncy castle of haphazardly flailing from one career to the next. I felt by now, I should know what I wanted to do with my life.

So I called the potential employer, thanked them for the opportunity, but told them that I was withdrawing myself from the candidacy. And then I freaked. Because if I wasn’t going to be a fundraiser, what the hell was I going to do? What kind of jobs were even out there? So I made lists. I took aptitude tests. I scoured through career transition guidebooks. All in the hopes that if I looked hard enough, one of these tools would reveal to me what my secret career desire was.

My family was no help. My mother did what she always does and suggested I work for the government or the Olympics. My sister told me to run away to Europe. My father just said, “You’ll figure it out, kid.”

I realized I needed to answer two things: What kind of jobs were available, and what kind of work would I find fulfilling, challenging, stimulating. But how do you answer that question without actually doing the job? And how do you make yourself known to employers when you don’t have experience in their particular field? With the bigger decisions in life, such as buying a car or a house, people shop around to find what best suits them. So I decided to do the same with my job—in a sense, I decided to go on tour, or unemployment roadshow as I like to call it. I’m shadowing people at work to find out what they do, what sort of skills they need to do it, and whether or not it would be a match for me. In a sense, I’m still hopping around in the employment bouncy castle, but this time I’m looking before I leap.

I’ve come up with a few rules for myself to ensure the most diversified Unemployment Roadshow experience possible:

  1. I will do any job I’m invited to do as long as it is legal and doesn’t require me to remove all of my clothing
  2. I will work for any amount time between 1 and 24 hours consecutively.
  3. I will do whatever menial or mundane task that needs to be done (a.k.a. that pile of stuff on the corner of the desk that you’ve put off for weeks or that stack of dishes that needs to be washed) in turn for a 20 minute conversation about your job.
  4. I will work entirely and completely for free.

It’s like a new kind of networking, except with free labour. I’m happily accepting all job invitations here and as I mentioned in rule 1, I will do any job I’m invited to do. It’s kind of like bring your daughter to work day, but it’s bring your 33-year old jobless friend to work instead.