I’m 59 and can’t hold a job. Or more accurately, I can’t stick with a career. Well, at least not like my Dad did. I mean, he really only had one. I’m on Number Nine.
We subconsciously use our parents as our default yardstick with which to measure our lives. It must be a thing, since we’re bombarded constantly with “Will this generation do worse than their parents???” We’ve been hearing some variation on that jeremiad since at least as far back as the ’80s. By which I mean the 1880s. Maybe the 1780s.
In the case of my own father, he had exactly two jobs in his entire life. A few weeks after he graduated from high school, he started Job #1. Which came with a natty green uniform, three hots, and a cot. Not that Dad had much say in the matter, what with his new boss being Uncle Sammy and it being the last 15 months of the Second World War.
When my father was discharged, he came back to Skeeterville and went to work for the company his father had started during the war. Keep in mind that anybody who could put Nut A onto Bolt B for Uncle Sammy made money during The Big One. Grandpa actually started his company in 1943 while still working full time as plant manager for another company running full tilt in support of war production.
And that’s where Dad stayed for 37 years. He managed to retire at 57, which is not too shabby. Then he smoked and drank himself to death four years later. So there’s that. But point taken, yes? He spent his entire working life with one employer. And this is kind of what we Baby Boomers assumed to be The Natural Way of Things.
It didn’t exactly work out that way for me.
When I graduated from Tulane—and bid a reluctant adieu to Nyah’luns—I fulfilled everyone’s expectations by heading off to become an aspiring young stockbroker. Yep, as that immortal bluegrass bard and proud weed smoker, John Hartford, says, “They sold me a suit and they cut off my hair/And sent me to work in Tall Buildings.”
This lasted about three nanoseconds. I got through a couple of months of training that prepared me for the New York Stock Exchange’s Series 7 examination—which is why I still understand calls and puts, straddles and strangles. But in reality, this was a salesman gig and I’m not very good at being interested in everybody while getting them to fork over their Hard-Earned Money.
So wallowing in misery—did I mention I managed to get married and impregnate my wife during these same few months?—I happened to pass an Air Force recruiting office. I thought to myself, “Self, what’s the most opposite job to being a stockbroker?” In my tenuous mental state, I actually answered, “Why Self, I believe that would be flying Very Large Airplanes at Very High Speed and Very Close to the Ground whilst Very Angry People shoot things at you.”
So there you have it—problem solved and thus ended Career #1. I signed on the dotted line and headed off to Officer’s Training and Navigator School, emerging a year later as a newly minted B-52 bomber navigator.
Although I remained 20 years, I actually had a couple of careers within the Air Force. After six years on the aviators’ Island of Lost Boys, I finally decided to grow up. Well, that and the fact a flight surgeon medically grounded me, which genuinely Sucked Out Loud because I really, really liked flying airplanes (death of Career #2). But the Air Force made up for this crushing disappointment by sending me off to law school—all expenses paid and with a captain’s salary—for three years at Georgetown (birth of Career #3).
I spent the next 14 years doing various kinds of prosecutorial and international things, which was an exhausting but way-cool gig. I then retired from said Air Force at the earliest possible moment that came with a lifetime pension. Seriously, I entered the Air Force on the 5th of July 1983 and asked to retire on the 4th of July 2003—seemed kind of poetic. But the Department of Defense likes to round things off and so only lets you retire on the first day of the month, so 1 August 2003 was the date the curtain came down on Career #3 and I began getting paid for continuing to breathe in and breathe out. Sweet…
Not having a clue what to do next—I was 43 and had one kid in college and two on the way, so retired retirement wasn’t in the cards—I accepted an offer from a guy I’d served with in Europe to start our own consulting company that sold back to the Department of Defense all the training and education they’d paid so dearly to give us while in uniform (and initiating Career #4). Again, sweet…
This went quite well and the company expanded a lot faster than we’d guessed it would—which presented a problem, since I’d thought I could work part-time for the company while doing a PhD back at Georgetown. Yeah, that didn’t happen. So after toughing it out for a year, I withdrew from the Georgetown PhD program… and the Government Department immediately asked me to be a part-time Lecturer and a Senior Fellow in some new center they’d just launched. (This both ended putative Career #5 and launched Career #6 in part-time professor-ing. Karma can be one hilarious woman.)
I ran the international practice group of my company for seven years—when I got That Itch and made a deal to sell my shares back to my partners. Another gig bit the dust—Career #4 was no more. I knocked around Ireland for a month with Kay-Kay, then took a three-month consulting gig… in Jamaica. (Karma really is hilarious, I mean she kills it sometimes.)
After that hardship assignment, I was offered a job teaching law and running international programs at a law school up in NYC. It took me about 15 minutes… Oh, who am I kidding? It took me about 15 seconds to say yes to Career #7. So with all the kiddies grown and gone and having just turned 52, Kay-Kay and I packed it up for The Apple. And adventure!
Yeah, that. Loved the teaching, my students, the international programs. Hated—and I mean with the intensity of a thousand burning suns HATED—New York City. After less than five years of trying to convince ourselves how cool it was to live in New York, Kay-Kay finally looked at me and said, “This really stinks. Let’s go back to Virginia, whaddayasay?” You see, we’d been in NYC so long we’d started saying things like “whaddayasay” and “fuggedaboutit.” This was profoundly frightening. We left skid marks. Thus expired Career #7 at the uncomfortable age of 56.
Back in Virginia, having paid off all our debts and in full ownership of our house, vehicles, and a new a/c system, Kay-Kay said, “Hey, why don’t you take a year off and write that book you’ve been whining about doing since Reagan was president?” This sounded a lot like Career #8, so I enthusiastically accepted. I managed to produce all of one and most of a second and I’m told they’re fairly decent novels. I discovered I both love Career #8 as a writer and am pretty good at it.
Of course, I haven’t hit the big time with my writing yet, but I’m hopeful Karma still has a few yucks up her sleeve for me. I’ve settled into a new and decidedly quirky melange of a Career #9. I’m still writing, with my third novel out in September. I’m also doing a fair amount of lawyer work for a new company started by some old business colleagues—and it pays a lot better by the hour than my writing, to be sure. I’m also back to part-time teaching, which fills a void from my days as a law professor. Kay-Kay does all the editing, marketing, and business management for the publishing division of the Walker Family Enterprise and we genuinely enjoy working together. It’s a little chaotic sometimes, but it gives us a lot of freedom to work from anywhere in the world—including much nearer to grandkids—and we make it work.
I’ll write more about the nuts and bolts of Career Changes after 50 in some subsequent posts, in particular jumping into The Writer’s Life. AARP says there are 100 million of us Americans over age 50 and 12% of us say we’d like to write a book someday. Let’s talk about that later, okay?