Finding or Creating Sustainable Work as a Life Strategy

2 Shares

In It’s Time to Roll Out the Alt-Retirement Movement I outlined the reality that most people will not be able to retire, at least not completely. One of the main points I tried to emphasize was that most people are going to need to continue working, if even at a reduced capacity.

As is often the case, readers/commenters often take articles in somewhat different directions, providing inspiration for still more topics.

Finding or Creating Sustainable Work as a Life Strategy
Finding or Creating Sustainable Work as a Life Strategy

Today’s article is inspired by a comment exchange between myself and reader/commenter Deb D. Deb wrote (summarized):

“I think we’re going to completely redefine retirement or get rid of the concept altogether. Most people can’t save enough in 40 years of working to support themselves for 30 or more years of not working…I’d like to see us move in a different direction: toward a longer, much more flexible working life, with more part-time work, instead of where people retire and watch their nest egg go down for 30 years…

…if you keep a toe in the workforce, you can spend more comfortably because you still have some income…that means we need to find ways that people can work from home, or in the workplace with aging disabilities and support people so that they can continue to work. There are very few people who are so disabled that they’re not able to do anything. I would like to see us be encouraged to be productively engaged for as long as we can be.”

Though the immediate topic of that article was retirement, Deb’s comment got me to thinking that what she described should be a strategy throughout life. If so, the new order of the day is finding or creating sustainable work as a life strategy.

What Is Sustainable Work?

I want to step away from retirement as the central topic here. This is more important than it seems on the surface. Many jobs today – even relatively simple ones – fall into the category of churn ‘em and burn ‘em.

You probably know exactly what I’m talking about with that description. Most jobs today are looking for people with 27 (or so) distinct job skills. The job itself would better be done by two or three people. The pay is not commensurate with either the skill requirements or the work level expected. Even in jobs that are relatively simple, the stress level is off the charts.

Is it any wonder job tenure is commonly measured in just months or one or two years? You can only take so much of that grind before you burn out. Ironically, it’s quite possible you’ll be fired precisely because you’re burned-out.

That’s not sustainable work. And that’s the problem. It’s also a major reason why so many people crave early retirement. Or begin collecting Social Security at 62, even though they’re really not ready to retire. Constant, super stressful work can cause physical and emotional problems. It also hurts personal relationships. And just as bad, it makes the worker think he or she “can’t hack it”.

As normal as that arrangement has become in our culture, it’s something we must resist like the plague.

Yes, Some Careers ARE more Sustainable than Others

As I discovered in my own life, some occupations are in fact more sustainable than others. For example, my extended stint in the mortgage business was a classic example of an unsustainable career. By contrast, my time in public accounting was much more agreeable. And the best, most sustainable career I’ve held is working as a self-employed blogger.

Finding or creating sustainable work is about finding occupations that are most comfortable for each of us. It’s not an easy thing to do, but I’ve found that, yes, some careers are much more sustainable than others. You may have to do some career filtering to get there. I did.

I plan to continue blogging for the rest of my natural life. And if I had to, I can do public accounting well into my old age. But had I stayed in the mortgage business, I’m certain I would never have lived long enough to reach old age.

All careers and occupations are not created equally. Especially when it comes to sustainability. I fully understand why some people want to retire tomorrow, while others (like me) never want to. It all depends on what it is you’re doing to make a living.

Finding and Creating Sustainable Work as a Life Strategy

When I got into blogging, I didn’t have a concept of sustainable work. But since I was coming out of the mortgage business, I was absolutely certain what wouldn’t work. I knew I had to get into an occupation that would “work” for me.

That’s the essence of finding and creating sustainable work. It’s not something that’ll happen by accident. I actually sat down with a pen and a blank sheet of paper, and set up a “T” account – positives to the left, negatives to the right. I used that analysis on every potential occupational option.

That’s how I came up with blogging. For the first time in my life I decided I needed to do something that would fit with who I am and what I like to do. Most of us never give ourselves permission to do that – I certainly hadn’t up to that point.

Now I’m not going to imply that my course was an easy one. The first couple of years of my blogging journey fell into the category of “starving artist”. Blogging produced very little revenue, and I was forced to support it with contract assignments. Fortunately, I had a background in public accounting that enabled me to juggle two part-time occupations.

The double duty thing lasted for six years. But a surprising thing happened – me and my family survived, and blogging eventually became my full-time career.

I’m not sharing that story to show how brilliant I am. (In retrospect, I realize such a course actually requires a certain amount of stupidity, but that’s not a point I want to dwell on.)

The point is, it is possible to find and create sustainable work. But there’s always a price that has to be paid, and I think that’s where it falls apart for most people.

Getting Stuck in a Rut

I think what stops most people from getting serious about finding and creating sustainable work is lifestyle choices. If you have a suburban home, a late model car, annual vacations, and all kinds of plans about a comfortable retirement, your chances of finding sustainable work diminish considerably.

Most people underestimate the money, effort and time that’s required to maintain the suburban lifestyle. At the same time, they’re terrified to let go of it.

They may have a suspicion that there’s a better life “somewhere”, but they’re not willing to pay the price to find it. They’re trapped by decisions they made earlier in life, the expectations of others, and the desire to “keep up”.

I’m not going to lie, my own career transition took more than just imagination and hard work. It required a change of lifestyle for me and my family.

We had to sell our house, and move to less expensive quarters. Our cars were kept and driven until they became “beaters”. We gave up vacations and frequent restaurant dinners. We even had to let go of some expensive friends. I suppose it was easier, because my departure from the mortgage business was involuntary.

The payoff is that my wife and I are both in occupations we can literally do for the rest of our lives. Life is a lot less stressful, and we aren’t competing. We continue to maintain a low cost, flexible lifestyle, so we can make adjustments when and where necessary.

I know other people who’ve done the same thing, which means virtually anybody can. It’s well worth the transition. Sure, it’s very difficult when you’re going through it. But once you get to the other side, you come out with a completely different perspective on life, more control of your time, and more self-respect.

Different Kinds of Work for Different Phases of Life

One of the major factors that makes sustainable work sustainable is the ability to maintain it during different phases of life. This is a major point. Popular culture makes it seem as if life moves in some sort of constant, coherent flow. It doesn’t.

While you might be able to sustain an all-consuming career when you’re single in your 20s, it can take a toll if you get married, or have children. Unfortunately, most high-powered careers don’t allow you to downshift. In fact, downshifting is one of the fastest ways to reach career stagnation in today’s fast-paced employment universe.

Apart from changes in familial status, there are other life changes, like personal crisis. That can include divorce, chronic health issues, and problems with family members.

Often forgotten too are changes in personal direction and motivation. For example, as you move into middle age, you may find that both motivation and energy level decline. That’s perfectly normal. But most fast-paced careers can’t and won’t accommodate it.

The kind of work you do in your 20s, may no longer be sustainable in your 40s. And if it’s emotionally or physically draining, you may not be able to do it much past 55 or 60. That will affect the retirement years.

That’s the challenge. Finding or creating sustainable work isn’t a one-time event. The type of work you do may need to change at different phases of your life.

This will require a combination of flexibility, creativity, imagination, and a willingness to adjust and change. Most people don’t allow themselves to let those qualities take prominence in their lives.

The Key to Sustainable Work: Discovering and Developing Your Best Skills and Talents

One of the unfortunate realities of life is that we’re called to make career decisions very early. A 16, 17 or 18-year-old is expected to choose a major in college, that will provide the foundation for a lifelong career.

A teenager is hardly qualified to make a decision of that magnitude.

Yet it happens all the time. After the routine four-to-six years in college, and a financial investment of tens of thousands of dollars – not to mention student loan debt – the graduate is fully committed to a career path that he may have already realized wasn’t the right choice.

That’s bad enough. But once he gets into his chosen field, and begins taking on obligations, revisiting his career choice becomes impossible. He’s got too much invested in the teenage career decision to turn back.

Strictly speaking, he can choose a different path. But expectations that have been put into his head, and those imposed by the culture, make it an extremely difficult choice.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that you may have to become more than a bit of a nonconformist to pull it off.

Or not. Finding sustainable work is really about connecting with yourself. Put another way, it’s moving toward becoming who you really are. It’s also moving away from the expectations of others.

In a real way, it’s a move toward sanity and greater control of your life. Even if your standard of living drops a couple of notches, the quality of your life will improve.

The Big Picture System Won’t Help You Find Your True Self

In fact, they have a vested interest in keeping you right where you are.

But to develop a sustainable career, you have to identify and develop your best skills and talents. In the one-size-fits-all world we live in, true talents are often buried by the needs of employers.

There’s no magic formula to make this happen. For some people, their best talents – the work they enjoy most – is closely related to what they’re already doing. That can be fairly easy to convert to sustainable work. For others, there’s no connection whatsoever. It can be very hard to convert that to sustainable work, because you’ll probably need to develop the talent over time.

That will take years, a lot of effort, and more than a generous portion of uncompensated work.

One strategy, perhaps the most effective, works like this:

  1. Decide what it is you’d like to do. There may be several, and you’ll have to entertain them all.
  2. Investigate the potential to monetize the activity. You may have to do some serious research if the talent or skill is unconventional.
  3. Find someone who’s already doing it, and use them as a mentor. Rest assured, if other people are doing something and making money, you can too.

There’s yet another system-induced problem here. Most of us are trained that before we can do anything career related, we first have to amass credentials. The task of getting those credentials alone can quickly short circuit a career change. You can easily decide the cost to make the change won’t be justified by the potential outcome.

Examples of Creating Sustainable Work

But today, many skills and businesses can be learned online. What’s more, entirely new occupations are being created all the time. Think about it – blogging didn’t even exist 15 years ago. But now thousands of people are making a living doing it, and thousands more have turned it into a valuable side business.

My good friend Dave – also a mortgage business refugee – turned his passion for public speaking into a professional speaking career.

These are just a couple of examples of what can be done. But it’s true that the Internet has really leveled the playing field. You can get into a brand-new occupation, one that doesn’t require credentials, or you can even create something entirely new.

Why are these occupations sustainable? Because they aren’t dependent on an employer. And they aren’t age-based, which leads nicely into the next concept…

Finding and Creating Sustainable Work to Maintain a Sustainable Retirement

Let’s circle back to Alt-Retirement. One of the big reasons for finding and creating sustainable work is that you can work well into the retirement years. Once again, most people are not going to have a comfortable full-time, TV version of retirement. They’re going to have to find some kind of work.

Unfortunately, work opportunities become more limited as we get older. Some of the reasons include:

  • Age discrimination. Employers have a definite preference for younger workers.
  • Physical limitations.
  • Geographic limitations.
  • Declining energy level, making it more difficult to keep up with employer expectations.
  • An employment universe where things are changing faster than most of us can keep up with.

It becomes increasingly important to develop skills and talents that can be sold to the general public, or the business community, rather than to a single employer.

In the search for sustainable work, self-employment has to be a serious consideration. After all, a person who’s self-employed doesn’t need to find a job.

There are other factors as well. Being self-employed makes it more likely you’ll be able to work from home. It’ll also be easier to work at your own pace, which will become increasingly important as you age.

Since the whole prospect of retirement is becoming increasingly shaky, the primary alternative will be to maintain some kind of work into the retirement years. The goal should be to develop sustainable work that can carry you throughout your life.

You can break that into stages too. You can do one type of work as a young adult, and another in middle-age. As you approach the retirement years, you can develop a third occupation, one that’s more consistent with aging and downshifting. The idea is to work comfortably, rather than to retire completely.

Final Thoughts on Finding or Creating Sustainable Work as a Life Strategy

I’ve long suspected the motivation behind the early retirement movement is for people to get out of occupations they hate. I get that. But what if you didn’t hate your work? Would you still need to retire?

My guess is that you would be content with semi-retirement, rather than the full-blown version. After all, working for 40 years to finance the last 30 years of your life is an actuarial nightmare. It’s precisely why so many people are worried about outliving their money.

Creating sustainable work is a major solution. It may not be conducive to a life of leisure, but if retirement income or funds will be low, it’ll be the next best thing.

Do you think finding or creating sustainable work is doable? Have you made any attempts at it of your own?

( Photo by Howard N2GOT )

2 Shares

16 Responses to Finding or Creating Sustainable Work as a Life Strategy

  1. Great article and mirrors my sentiments. I would add that the best investment for retirement is your health.

    Maintain your health and you can work until you can’t lift a pen or walk out the house.

    February and March 2018 demonstrates just how easy it is for investments go into reverse.

    So unless you have millions invested in the stock market or rental properties, it doesn’t take much for confidence to take a hit. But, if you can work flexibly you
    Will still keep a smil and maintain a reasonable lifestyle. Not as good as when you worked full time but better that running scared of the stock market.

  2. Hi Tim – Human memory is notoriously short, but I still remember during and after the Financial Meltdown when a lot of people’s retirement plans were delayed or canceled due to the carnage in the financial markets. Retirement is largely based on rosy projections about how things will play out in the future. I don’t think life is predictable enough for all but the wealthiest to retire. That’s why I constantly advocate for maintaining some form of earned income no matter what. It’s the portfolio approach to live, having various income sources – from investments, jobs, business ventures, SS, pensions – so if one fails, you’re not in the poor house.

    But it’s really moved beyond just retirement. You have to be thinking that way beginning in your 20s. Jobs are only as secure as the current project, the next earning report, or the next economic downturn. We all need to get flexible.

  3. Recently an empty nester of 5 kids, I was able to quit my 9-5 job of 30 yrs and start a small business. Ive still got to bring in an income but without the kids home, it can be less. Anywho, I connected w a retired, small business owner who was talking to me about passive income ie just like your blogging and other etc ideas on the subject.

    I think youre right-retirement may have to be redefined?! There are very few pensions, any more. Saving for 40 yrs to pay for 30 more yrs isn’t that easy if you have kids. Not to mention one health issue or job loss, divorce can ‘set back’ even the best saver.

  4. Hi Ruth Ann – It was Deb D who said retirement may have to be redefined, and of course I completely agree. Though it is possible to save and invest enough in 40 years to fund 30 – as long as the stock market doesn’t crash near the end of your work life or the beginning of retirement – but most people won’t be able to pull that off. But the other thing I keep harping on is the cost of living. It’s rising relentlessly. For example, I just paid a business expense that’s more than 20% higher than it was a year ago – and for the very same service.

    That’s happening all over, and the government keeps reporting 1-2% inflation. You might be completely comfortable retiring on $50,000 in retirement income at 65, but it won’t be enough in five or ten years, much less in 20.

    I’d rather maintain a viable career/business going into retirement, than to have to come out of retirement and start from scratch. The pace of change can make you irrelevant in just a few years.

    Good on you for starting a business after the kids are gone. It highlights that there’s more you can do when as you get older and burdens ease. We all need to take advantage of that cycle.

  5. Many of your statements resonate with me. After 21 years with my employer, I was burned out. The job paid really well which allowed for us to save aggressively but I had to be available 24/7, 365 days a year… that is correct, even when I was on PTO it was “pretend time off.” It was a job I loved at the beginning but at the end they couldn’t pay me enough to stay. I managed a large team, 2 large hospitals, and 21 administrative and medical buildings and every year our leadership team demanded more and more from all of us. Now I am going to my local community college, volunteer and help with my grandson. I need to work (don’t have to) in order to feel that I’m contributing to society and keep my sanity. I’m embarking in a career change as well I’m going from information technology to accounting and loving every minute.

  6. Hi Yadira – You sound like a classic case of a burned out worker! Unfortunately, a lot of jobs are turning into something similar, even jobs you wouldn’t think would. In an attempt to be “lean and mean” employers are operating with little more than skeleton staffs. I’ve heard from a number of IT people that the job eventually turns into hell on earth, with the 24/7 on-call. It’s less of a job/career, and more of a bottomless lifestyle. I don’t blame you for getting out to reclaim your life. You’re blessed to have made enough to achieve a level of financial independence. A lot of people are too low on the payscale to do that.

    What you’re saying about needing to feel you’re contributing is an under-estimated side of the retirement issue. I find myself needing to be relevant, and it motivates my work. When that’s gone, I don’t know how you replace it. Some form of work seems to be the best way to achieve it.

  7. Kevin —
    Lots of stuff here that I’ve been thinking about recently.
    A lot of affluent suburban people I know have what I call “golden handcuffs” — they have a good lifestyle, but it’s entirely dependent on their primary employer deciding they’re worth keeping on the job. When the boss tells them to “jump!”, they don’t even give it a second thought, such as when they’re told to re-locate to keep their position. Living well? Sure, but you still have to make major concessions.

    Right now I’m looking into ways I can diversify away from the traditional “commute to a job” arrangement — self-employed, work from home, form a co-operative venture with a few good friends, or some combination thereof. Not sure how to get there quite yet, but I’m learning. If you’re unhappy with your station in life, start doing some research — and it’s important to have the right frame of mind as well. Trying to view these things as opportunities instead of as obstacles is critical!

  8. I couldn’t have put it better myself Steve (the golden handcuffs). In my experience, people truly do get locked into certain lifestyles, to the point where they’ll do desperate things to maintain it. A lot of people a few years back lost their houses in foreclosure because they didn’t accept the reality that they couldn’t afford the house, and hung on until the sheriff came and took it.

    That kind of thing sounds noble at some level, but it’s more restricting than anything else. When you’re locked into a lifestyle to the degree that you can’t imagine any other way of life, you give up flexibility and resilience. We need both in today’s ever-changing and completely uncertain environment. I decided a long time ago that my soul and my life were more important that any lifestyle, job or doctrine. Absent those tethers it’s a lot easier to react and adjust to change.

    Good thinking to diversify away from the traditional job. You don’t have to give it up, but look to create additional income sources. Investigate the possibilities, focusing on what you’re good at, then experiment. I’ve found that once you decide what you’re going to do and go forward, options open up and things start to happen. That’s a formula anyone can use.

  9. Exactly! As human beings, we too often fall into the trap of “either/or” thinking: “Either I work a traditional job for 40+ hours a week, or I should just ditch it all and start my own business for 40+ hours a week”, without realizing there’s an almost infinite number of possibilities in between those two ends. Yet how many of us were taught to think flexibly and resiliently like this while we were growing up? I don’t think I was, and I actually had a pretty good education!

  10. If it’s one thing I’ve learned in life is that formal education is one of life’s primary indoctrinators (is that even a word???). I don’t think that was as true 30-40 years ago, but it definitely is now. The education system today primarily prepares students for employment in corporate America and government. It’s a system teaching how to become a compliant member of a system. It’s what they know.

    By contrast, they don’t prepare you for life in self-employment or as a mobile creative because they don’t know how to. We learn that on our own by trial and error and being willing to take chances. The suppression of risk taking is one of the biggest obstacles we face as individuals and as a culture.

  11. Most people will not step out of the box due to fear. It takes research, discussion, and a desire to step out to change what isn’t going to work, or last forever. I wouldn’t suggest anyone quit a job to go into business without backing or a part time job at retirement age. Before you reach retirement age, check with local colleges and schools for life skills and education for older adults. Many are free or at reduced costs if you are over 55 yrs.

  12. That’s good advice Deb, especially coming from the person who inspired this article! I think what hurts a lot of people is that they get into a comfort zone, better said as a comfort rut. Comfort’s good in the normal course of life. But when you get too comfortable, it can be hard to step up when it’s needed. We all naturally prefer easy, but it’s a real sign of maturity when you can put easy aside and do what needs to be done.

    Fear is a real issue too of course. It’s mostly fear of the unknown. But once you get forward motion going, the fears subside. It’s taking those first few steps where fear is most intense. I like your idea of gradually expanding your skills base. As you do, you’ll build confidence. There’s something incredibly empowering about learning something new. That’s why I’ve committed myself to being a perpetual student. Not knowing something is no excuse to not learn it. I have to pinch myself when I realize the things I’m doing today, that I would have seen as impossible five or ten years ago. It gives you the confidence and conviction you need to go onto the next new thing. It’s really a mindset as much as anything.

  13. You really hit the nail on the head with this article! It is a good reminder to me that all is not lost, and I can venture out into new beginnings. Several years ago I was working as a contractor, so had the flexibility, and was able to purchase and rehab a house. That was the most fun, along with the most challenging thing, I have done in a very long time. I was incredibly happy, and very fortunate to not lose the shirt off my back! It was a great learning opportunity, and I found something that was so different, yet fit me perfectly. I have thought for years about doing that again, but kind of lost my confidence. it’s that security thing again. I so loved having the freedom, even though I worked very hard, it never seemed like a job to me. As I read this article, that started coming back to me, and I am really smiling. Thank you for the inspiration that I always seem to find in your articles!

  14. Thanks, inspiration is what we’re going for here. Since there really is no security, doing what you know and love is usually the best course. That doesn’t mean abandoning security completely. But it does mean recognizing the limits of security and not letting it dictate your life. In the end it really is a false god. (Of course, if you’re going to take on a renovation project, make sure it can be done profitably – the TV programs make it look at lot easier than it really is.)

Leave a reply