When I joined the Space Shuttle Main Engine program at what was then Rockwell International’s Rocketdyne division, I had never heard the men in my life use the word “retirement.” The reason; they were mostly small businessmen who expected to work until they dropped dead. And that’s exactly what happened to every one of them.
At Rocketdyne, however, it seemed everyone I worked with talked incessantly about retirement. They also talked a lot about what they’d do if they won the lottery, but that’s another story.
A year later, I secured a position as a regular employee (I had been a temp; what they called a “job shopper”) and had to make decisions regarding my future retirement. Most notable of those decisions was whether or not to participate in the company’s 401K program. At the time, the decision was a no-brainer. The company matched employee contributions dollar for dollar, up to 8% of one’s gross income. It was a way to save up a fair amount of money as a nest egg.
Even so, I never saw myself as retiring; I felt I needed to work at something until I either died or was so infirm or incapacitated I wouldn’t be capable of anything useful. I fully expected to work at Rocketdyne until I was at least eighty, despite the fact I had little reason to believe I would live that long.
I ended up leaving what by that time was United Technologies’ Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne division. That was over seven years ago and I’m still not retired. I don’t expect I ever will retire and, frankly, the concept still means little to me. I do, however, enjoy some retirement income from that original 401K, as well as a small pension and social security. It’s not enough for me to stop working, but I really don’t want to stop. Here’s why.
Yesterday, Jeremiah Owyang posted a graphic on Facebook that caught my eye. It depicts a Japanese concept called Ikigai, which the people who live in Okinawa, Japan live — and live long — by. The concept translates roughly into “the reason you get out of bed in the morning.” It makes an interesting Venn diagram, as you can see below.
I shared his post with the following comment:
I believe I’ve hit this sweet spot a couple of times in my life, most notably when I worked on the Space Shuttle Main Engine program. I’m pretty close to it now as well, working with Quantellia and machine learning. How about you?
A few of my former colleagues chimed in and one of them actually found the original article in which the graphic had appeared. It’s short and not that old. The title is “Why North Americans should consider dumping age-old retirement.” You can find it here if you’d care to read it.
This is what I think we should all strive for. This is the kind of balance that brings peace of mind and contentment. I’m lucky to have experienced Ikigai in much of my work life. In explanation of how I felt I was working on “What the world needs,” I later commented:
I should point out, especially, I believe we need to establish not merely a scientific outpost off-planet, but a cultural outpost as well. I have no doubt Earth will experience an ELE someday and we need to get established elsewhere, if for no other reason than to repopulate the Earth after such an event, and have a leg up recalling all that we’d accomplished until that unfortunate event. Perhaps we’ll be able to divert any asteroids or comets we discover heading our way, and such a place won’t be necessary, but there’s no way to be completely sure of our ability to avoid catastrophe. I, therefore, felt it was somewhat of a sacred duty to play whatever small role I could to get humans into space. It’s why the cancellation of the Shuttle program – when there was nothing in the pipeline to replace it – was so disconcerting to me. It was a big reason I accepted an early severance package offered to all employees over 60 (I was almost 63 when they made it).
Now, over seven years since my “retirement”, I’m still fortunate to be working on something I believe the world needs (though there’s considerable dispute over whether it will destroy us in the long run). The only place I fall short is in the area of doing what I’m good at. This is because I’m not a data scientist or a designer or programmer. I am, however, a reasonably good salesman and have other skills I’m bringing to bear on my work with Quantellia. I expect my studies and experiences will fill up this hole reasonably soon.
I do believe everyone should be able to approach Ikigai. There is much the world needs and, despite the predicted crisis expected when the machines take over the world and millions of jobs disappear, there will still be lots we can do to lead fulfilling lives. I am a supporter of universal basic income (UBI) and find Jeremiah’s closing words from his Facebook post instructive:
Soon, automation will disrupt Ikigai, in the looming Autonomous World, and we’ll need to reset what our “reason for being” is.
I’m betting that we’ll accept the imperfect arts, humanities, and engage in wellness and fitness for longevity.
I happen to go along with those who believe UBI will unleash creativity and entrepreneurship, though I recognize the pitfalls it may present as well. Regardless, there is a looming crisis and, frankly, my current efforts in selling machine learning services and products, is accelerating it. I doubt we can step back from the cliff, so it may be time to give everyone a kind of “golden parachute”; at least one sufficient to allow them a soft landing when that crisis arrives.