A recent conversation with a close friend of mine (the godmother for my children) started me thinking about the decisions I’ve made in life and wondered why those decisions were made. I don’t think about this wondering if any other choices could have existed — in truth, I feel that my current path was always meant to be my path — but why do I feel so free making a life-changing decision that others find so difficult? Why did I quit my 9-to-5 job and decide to become a full-time writer and freelance editor?
My parents’ generation were raised to believe in loyalty to a company. You started working for a given firm in your early twenties, fresh out of university or college, and you worked your way up through the ranks until you retired some forty years later at the age of 65. That was the way of the world in the 1950s and 60s, and even in the 70s, but something happened in the 1980s that changed that philosophy. While an employee might have been loyal to a company, companies were no longer loyal to their employees. People who had been working at a firm for most of their adult lives were suddenly unemployed, unable to put food on the table and, in some cases, a roof over the head.
I know my parents fell into that trap. They owned their own house, but the bank foreclosed on them when I was roughly 6 years old. Ever since then, my parents have rented, still renting today, unable to afford another house and a black mark on their credit history that won’t go away.
But the changes in loyalty-to-the-job didn’t stop with the recession in the 1980s. As computers and the internet have changed our lives, so too has our work environments. There are some that still get into the car and drive to the office every day — my husband is one of them — but the days of working from 9am to 5pm are long gone. Frequently, office workers get a little more flex-time, able to decide their own starting and finishing times, as long as the work gets done. You put in the hours needed, but it’s not unheard of for a company to take advantage of those who are just hard workers, willing to work those extra long hours. With the introduction of the internet and laptop computers, many employees will leave the office to have dinner with their families, but as soon as the children are in bed, they’re on the computer and logging into the work servers to carry on working. (Something else my husband does.)
In addition, working your way up through the ranks doesn’t have same meaning that it used to. Today, in many companies, if you want to advance, you have to leave the company and find another job. If you look at a person’s work history, it’s quite common for someone to change jobs, and companies, every three or four years. Companies restructure and markets change, hence that job that you were working toward when you started with the firm may no longer exist. Career paths are no longer the straight roads that they once were.
The change in work philosophy would have been hardest on my parents’ generation, being in their 20s and 30s when the changes occurred in the first place. My father was thrown off the train to success more times than he would care to count, with the final time being when he was 62, forced into early retirement. My mother didn’t just change jobs every few years, but she also changed career paths. In my youth, she had trained as a nurse, and she was a damn-good ER nurse. However, she went back and retrained as a social worker, and that was after I had already obtained a Bachelor degree myself. My mother is now rapidly approaching 60, so she’s unlikely to change again.
But what about my generation, the children born in the 1970s and early 80s? My parents wanted to teach me about being loyal to a company, but their own experiences told them that the world of their parents was gone. Computers were decreasing in size and they were becoming more affordable every day. All my friends were getting personal computers in the home, something that was unheard of prior to the late 1980s. Technology was taking over our lives.
In my early 20s, the brick cellphone was a common fixture — it was an eyesore on the restaurant table and I groaned every time that my boyfriend insisted on bringing it with him. At the university, computer programming was a required subject for all student studying engineering and science. Email was starting to become common place and course notes were available to download from the university intranet. By the year 2000, cellphones were everywhere and it was unheard of for someone to NOT have one. Public phones disappeared from the street corners and if you didn’t have regular access to the internet, you were at a severe disadvantage compared to the person standing next to you in line at the supermarket. By the time I finished my PhD in 2009, whole university degrees had been structured around technologies that didn’t exist only four years prior. The rapid changes in technology and the shrinking world, thanks to the popular use of social media, transformed our society into something that has no resemblance to the world I was born into. The dangers that my children have to face is like nothing that any generation before them has ever encountered before. The concept of stranger danger has taken on a whole new level.
And for the first time in our lives, a career is no longer about being loyal to a company — but rather being loyal to ourselves.
I first embarked on the journey toward engineering and research when I very young. I was always interested in science and technology — the changing world fascinated me. I wanted to be one of those that helped shape the future. But then something changed within my own life: I had children. My priorities change. Here were these two people that were born into a world that no one recognised, and it was up to me to protect them. The job didn’t matter any more. I was still one of those helping to shape the future, but instead of doing it through some brilliant scientific discovery, I was doing it as a mother. I had advanced in my scientific career to a point where I needed to make choices: the job, or children. For me, the decision was a no-brainer. Like many other women, I put my career on a permanent hiatus.
But now my children are in their teens and don’t need me as much. In only two years, my son will be eligible to start driving and my daughter will start high school. Two years after that, my son will start university himself; three years after that, so too will my daughter. That’s only seven years. It may sound like a long time to some, but trust me, it’s not. It’ll go by so fast that I won’t remember it happening. But in seven years, I’ll be 47, with less than twenty years of work left before retirement age. I have to decide what path my life will take now and I can’t be afraid to push for that life.
If there is one thing that my parents have taught me is that life is so full of twists and turns. There is no such thing as a perfectly straight road. Every single one of us needs to find that one thing that makes us happy and cling onto it for dear life, never letting go. We have to give ourselves permission to make those hard choices, walking away from the company and career in pursuit of the dream.
Retirement is no longer a few short years. Many live well into their 90s. That’s another thirty years, another whole career.
In my recent conversation with my children’s godmother, both of us recognised this change in the world and both of us have made choices about the paths our lives will take from now on that fill us with giddy excitement. For me, that path will be into the world of fiction and publishing. I will become a published author. I will share my imagination with the world. By becoming an editor, I will help others get their stories out there, and I’ll do it with a smile. I hold no delusions of grandeur, publishing is one tough industry, but something said during that conversation makes me want to pursue it even more.
“Societies can fall and crumble, the whole world can change, but one thing that remains is the imagination.”
Even if technology changes to the point where paper books are a thing of the ancient past, the stories told are eternal. I have quite my 9-to-5 job in favour of a career as a writer and freelance editor because it’s something that I believe it. At the end of the day, technology and work philosophies could pass us by, but the words our minds create will always be there.
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© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2015
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