15 Jun 2010, 1:01pm
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  • Wake Up Call – Is Fear Standing In My Way

    There’s a guy in the office whose worked for The Firm for 39 years, he’s been with it man and boy. Let’s call him X, he’s 59 now, working as a project manager, on a project which is basically doomed. The suppliers were screwed down so much on price that they lied about the functionality of the products, and as a result it has no chance of being launched on time. They’ll be lucky if it does anything at all even when it is launched.

    X highlighted this, and as a result he’s been shifted to the bench. Don’t be the bringer of bad news, people don’t like it. Last week he wasn’t at work, and we found out why this week. He came in looking a shadow of his former self, apparently having suffered a TIA. Wikipedia doesn’t pull any punches – under treatment there is the stark phrase

    TIA can be considered as the last warning.

    Last year X discovered he had late diabetes, and generally the toll of working is showing on him. We’ve been getting onto him about it’s time he listened to his doctor and indeed his body, and simply pulled his ticket and left. He’s entitled to within a whisker of full pension, so money isn’t an issue.

    The tragedy is, that his whole world-view is associated with going to work. He has interests outside, but he has no vision, no mental model of what his life would mean if he didn’t go to work.

    He is holding, ready for the final approach, but has no map, no concept of where he is going to land. And so he fears leaving work, though he doesn’t need the money.

    I thought of X as I read McKenna’s book. He needs to take a look at where he is, where he is going, and why the hell he is still working when warning sings are flashing Wrong Way, No Entry, Do Not Carry On. He doesn’t need the money, but something that beggars belief is that he is hung up on it. Yes, his pension is about half his salary. But he’s got no mortgage, he isn’t raising kids, what’s he need all that for. One thing is sure. He’s not taking it with him if the warning signals continue to get louder and one day they stop all of a sudden.

    I thought of another guy who I used to work with, in his 50s. He hadn’t progressed as far as he would like, and could be bitter about it. He lived to go hiking with his wife, and was saving massively in AVCs and the like so he could leave early. He was physically very fit – you don’t get to do all that hiking without developing muscles like steel.

    He never got there – in his mid 50s the clockwork stopped, and he died of a heart attack.

    I would say mental health at The Firm is below average, partly because as an engineering facility it is male-dominated, and partly because its age profile is skewed towards the middle-aged. It can’t hold young-uns because it doesn’t attract many of them in the first place, and it is deskilling so they see a lack of future potential. This isn’t a great problem for HR, as it probably needs to thin out the ranks a little bit more.

    Dmitry Orlov - Reinventing Collapse

    Looking at it I would say that as people get over 50 they become vulnerable to the stress manifesting as physical ailments. Dmitry Orlov, in his book about the collapse of the Soviet Union said that the 45-60 age group was particularly sensitive to the stress of the loss of meaning and what they had worked for. They would look at what they expected and what they now had, and the fire within their minds would surrender and they’d top themselves.

    That’s not unknown at work, though it’s always hushed up – I only heard about it through a guy that worked for me that was in the volunteer first aid service. I’ve never looked at a particular cracked paving slab in the same way after hearing how it got that way.

    I thought of X when I read Early Retirement – Is Fear Standing In Your Way. Everything about him is trying to flag him down, his body is telling him that he is running out of road. And yet like a rabbit in headlights, because he cannot see a meaningful life without work, he is frozen in fear despite all the warning lights flashing red. What part of

    TIA can be considered as the last warning.

    does he not understand…

    So often we stay with the tried and tested, either because we lack inspiration to do otherwise, or we fear the unknown. It is sometimes good to be reminded that it doesn’t have to be this way, and the inspirational RetiredSyd did that for me today, introducing me to Early Retirement – Is Fear Standing In Your Way and to Early Retirement Extreme’s The Voluntarily Dispossessed. A reminder of what is wrong about the status quo is neatly summarised in Never Forget.

    Sometimes it’s good to come up for air.

    Great post. The way ahead is not clear cut for X, unfortunately. He probably fears retiring in the same way that some people fear writing a will. Going to work literally keeps him alive – even if it kills him.

    The situation reminds me a little of my father, who worked 3-4 extra years he should never have worked for a little more on his pension, then had heart attack two years into retirement. He wasn’t stressed at work – poor diet and weight were mainly to blame – but he did stay long after it outlived its usefulness. It’s one of the reasons I started Monevator.

    If I might be permitted a link, I’m not sure you’ve seen this piece – I think it’s relevant:


    Sorry to hear about your Dad – it must have been a hard call for him. It’s hard to avoid what ERE called the one more year to comfort issue.

    With X it is hard – certainly if I had a wake up call like that, I’d run, not walk, for the exit. However, I’ve been looking for an out for the last year and a bit, so the mental shift is nowhere near as great. You’re right however – what does it serve him if he preserves his health but his sense of meaning begins to fail him…

    […] incentives, particularly for the old fossils that were about as old as I am now These guys tended to be lifers with some twenty or thirty years at the Firm, and a fairly set view of what they were going to do […]

    […] we have said our permanent goodbyes to two people I have shared offices with over the years, and one took retirement last year pretty much with a warning from his doctor that he is running out of road. It is truly a great […]

    […] was basically ‘wrong way, do not enter, turn back now‘. I was lucky, some colleagues discovered they had taken more than they could withstand when they wake up in hospital from a stroke or heart attack. I had to form an exit […]


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