“Let’s leave it all out on the field”: A Gen Joneser rallying cry?

Bartlet (l) and McGarry (r) confer

Dear readers, I confess that this is a bit of a ramble, a lot of thinking out loud in digital form. It’s about my generational cohort — the one dubbed Generation Jones, i.e., late Boomers and early Gen Xers born between 1954 and 1965 — and how we might contribute to the world in the years to come.

One of my favorite television characters is Leo McGarry from “The West Wing,” the Emmy Award-winning political drama that ran on NBC for seven seasons. The late John Spencer, a supremely underrated actor, played McGarry, a politically savvy and trusted close advisor to President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen).

A favorite West Wing episode comes late in the series (season 6, episode 12). McGarry is returning to White House duties after a heart attack and bypass surgery, and the Bartlet Administration has only a year left in its second term. The President is fatigued due to a chronic illness, and McGarry is struggling to regain his health and his role in the Oval Office. Too often the Administration is letting events control it, rather than the other way around. Leo senses that maybe the President and his inner circle are simply running out the clock, while trying resting on their laurels.

In a great scene featuring McGarry and the President, Leo challenges his long-time friend and fellow political war horse to push hard during their last year in office: “Both of us, sir, this is our last game. Let’s leave it all out on the field.” With the President’s approval, Leo calls a late night meeting for the senior staff, during which they begin to map out an ambitious policy agenda for the Bartlet Administration’s final 365 days.

A Gen Joneser rallying cry?

I love that scene between McGarry and the President. Yeah, it is corny and doesn’t bear any resemblance to today’s Washington D.C. But for pure inspiration, it works for me.

And maybe it even speaks to me. Let’s leave it all out on the field. When I think of fellow members of Generation Jones, these words come to mind as a potential rallying cry for our (hopefully many!) remaining years.

Today’s Gen Jonesers are roughly between 52 and 64 years old. In terms of traditional age demographics, this covers a healthy span of middle age. And while our bodies may be feeling the passage of time, we also have a lot of accumulated wisdom, insight, and experience. I’d like to think that we have a lot of gas left in our tanks. In fact, in many realms we may be at or near the top of our games in terms of productivity and leadership capabilities. These qualities give us opportunities to make significant contributions to the world around us during the years to come.

In some cases, a middle-aged career shift may be part of a fundamental personal transition. Career counselors and coaches have sometimes referred to this as pursuing an “encore” career, one that may involve earning less or even no money — the latter crossing into the realm of avocation — but in any event enabling someone to make a difference in a chosen arena. A popular website devoted to the pursuit of encore careers uses the tag “Second acts for the greater good.” It’s an appealing idea: Earn enough money to secure your future, then spend a chunk of the rest of your time giving back.

Imagine, millions of seasoned, able, mature workers pursuing work and activities that help our communities, big and small. It’s about defining personal legacies, giving back, and paying it forward, right? As I wrote in 2016:

…(W)e live in a world in serious need of more joy, creativity, humanity, and compassion. Who wants to look back at a life only to see a lot of wonderful opportunities squandered and wasted?

Reality checks

But hold on, there are harsh reality checks on my generational cheerleading. Let’s start with economics and personal finances. As I wrote last year, many members of Gen Jones are getting hammered in terms of jobs, savings, and retirement readiness:

…Generation Jones has been snakebitten by broader events. During the early 1980s, many graduated into a terrible recession that limited entry-level job opportunities. This was also a time when America’s industrial jobs base went into sharp decline (a trend continuing to this day), wages started to flatline (ditto), and employers began eliminating pension plans (ditto again).

Fast forwarding, the Great Recession hit during what should’ve been Gen Jonesers’ strongest earning years, the heart of their 40s and early 50s. Many lost jobs and livelihoods during that time and have struggled to recover. Some have never recovered. Gen Jonesers are now hurtling toward what have been considered traditional retirement years; most are within 10-15 years of that time. But as I have written often on this blog…, America faces a retirement funding crisis of major proportions.

Gen Jonesers are in the bull’s-eye of that retirement funding crisis, as will become evident during the next decade. In terms of its entrance into the labor market, this age group is the first to fully experience the widening wealth gap that began in the 1980s and continues to this day. Absent dramatic changes in the American economic structure — likely through some combination of civic leadership, public policy, and political voice — we are a preview of things to come.

Overall, the march of time brings a mix of ordinary and extraordinary life challenges. Job losses and career setbacks have emotional as well as financial impacts. Illnesses and deaths are a part of life, but no less difficult because of their inevitability. As many regular readers of this blog know, various forms of abuse can exact a significant toll and have cumulative effects.

Looking ahead

So what is it to be? A rich midlife with impact-making encore contributions, or remaining years spent pinching pennies and recovering from setbacks? Of course, the reality for most Gen Jonesers will be somewhere in between, replete with individual stories and circumstances. After all, there is no one-size-fits-all playbook for midlife and beyond.

With all that said, here is a cluster of framing ideas for our consideration, some possible ways for us to leave it all out on the field:

Legacy work — It starts with legacy work. Again from 2016:

By “legacy work” I mean our core contributions and accomplishments, the stuff we’d like to be remembered for in the longer run and by people we care about. In the realm of vocation, it may involve creative or intellectual work, achievement in business, service to others, building something, activism and social change work, or some type of innovation or invention.

…(O)ne’s legacy work need not be vocational in nature. It can include parenting, caregiving, an engaging avocation, a deeply meaningful hobby, or charitable work. For some, a “day job” may pay the bills, but an unrelated project or endeavor brings the deeper meaning.

Community — In recent years, loneliness has been labeled an epidemic and a public health crisis by health experts. (See recent pieces in the Washington Post and New York Times for more.) Part of the answer is to build and maintain genuine communities. These communities can be grounded in geography (e.g., neighborhood), shared interests and activities (e.g., vocations, avocations, hobbies), or shared values (e.g., social and faith beliefs). The care and feeding of communities and those within them require intention and commitment.

Recovery — By the time midlife hits, a lot of folks find themselves recovering from setbacks small and large. The big hits often involve fear, stress, and even trauma. Fortunately, for many there are paths to recovery. For example, even those experiencing post-traumatic stress, once thought to be extremely hard to treat, may heal via new healing modalities and even enter a phase known as post-traumatic growth.

Scarcity, generosity, and choices — Some very smart people are telling us that we face a long-term era of scarcity. Accordingly, our challenge may be to find ways to live good and meaningful lives during a time when resources (personal and global) are limited. As I see it, it will require letting go of some the values that led us to this place and reorienting our lives and lifestyles so that we are less about stuff and more about humanity. It will mean giving back and paying it forward, while defining abundance differently from the ways we have done so before.

Instructive on these points are the words of my late friend and pioneering adult educator John Ohliger (1926-2004), which appeared in a 1981 issue of his newsletter Second Thoughts:

My picture is of a future where we live more relaxed and more modest lives with an abundance of unmeasurable and infinitely available non-material (or better, trans-material) resources. All the travail and pressure we’re going through right now may be paving the way for that future. This future could be one where we will have a choice of “goodies”; not ones requiring scarce energy, minerals, or dollars; or ones permitting some people to get rich while others go hungry, but choices that we create with our own hearts and heads and hands among people we know and care for.

Related posts

Obviously there’s a lot to contemplate here, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. For those who would like to explore some of these themes a bit deeper, I’ve collected a bunch of past entries relating to midlife, transitions, vocations, avocations, and community building:

Work, savings, and retirement: Generation Jones is getting hammered (2017)

From hoop jumping to legacy work and places in-between (2016)

Charles Hayes on the ripples of our lives (2016)

David Brooks and his “moral bucket list” (2015)

Defining, refining, creating, and redefining your “body of work” (2015)

Tribes for brewing ideas and engaging in positive change (2015)

The power of face-to-face dialogue for change agents (2015)

Taking stock at midlife: Time for reading assignments (2014)

Hard looks at joblessness, retirement funding, and Generation Jones (2014)

Personal reinvention: Take a look at “50 over 50” (2014)

Holiday reads: Fueling heart, mind, and soul (2014)

“The Shift: Ambition to Meaning” (2014)

Transitions and inner callings (2014)

Inauthenticity at work and the fast track to a midlife crisis (2013)

“Follow your bliss”? Parsing Joseph Campbell’s famous advice (2012)

What’s your legacy work? (And how can you de-clutter way to it?) (2011)

The “butterfly effect” and working as an educator (2011)

Embracing creative dreams at midlife (2010)

Will our avocations save us? (2010)

Does life begin at 46? (2010).

Are You a Marathoner or a Sprinter? (2009)

A few revised posts for your consideration

Dear readers, during the past year I’ve revised, tweaked, and updated several popular earlier posts to this blog. I hope you’ll find them interesting and/or useful!

The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary human need (original: July 2013 ; revised: January 2017) — “Intellectuals should help to lead, not merely react and respond. In both of my talks at this conference, I suggested that scholars should be “responsibly bold” about investigating reality and fashioning solutions to our problems. I also urged us to be “restlessly patient,” understanding that positive change can take time, while continually seeking opportunities to effect that change sooner than later.”

Gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic (original: December 2012; revised: March 2017) — “Gaslighting often is discussed in the context of spousal and family relationships. It makes sense, then, that we see so many parallels between domestic abuse and workplace bullying. Perhaps the leap from Ingrid Bergman & Charles Boyer to The Office isn’t much of one after all.”

When the bullying comes from a board member (original: August 2011; revised: November 2017) — “‘Board bullying,’ as I call it, is one of the largely unexplored aspects of workplace bullying. I do not know how frequent it is, and I have not yet found any research literature on the topic. . . . And yet I know it is real. I suspect it is more prevalent in the non-profit sector than in the business sector, but that impression may be unduly influenced by the fact that I’ve spent much of my career and volunteer service in non-profit organizations.”

What is academic tenure? (original: August 2011; revised: December 2016) — “Tenure is under attack. Some claim that tenured professors are too coddled and privileged. Others say that in the face of rising tuition and a difficult economy, tenured and tenure-track professors are too expensive. In some cases, political and university leaders are going after tenure to diminish academic freedom in higher education.”

When “heart, will, and mind are on the same page” (original: July 2010; revised: July 2017) — “For many years, University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has been urging us to seek those elusive states of flow in our lives, those experiences when ‘heart, will, and mind are on the same page.’  They may involve ‘singing in a choir, programming a computer, dancing, playing bridge, [or] reading a good book.’  In these moments, ‘what we feel, what we wish, and what we think are in harmony.'”

From hoop jumping to legacy work and places in between

(image courtesy of http://worldartsme.com)

(image courtesy of http://worldartsme.com)

Last week I invoked the writings of philosopher Charles Hayes to consider how the ripple effects of our good works can positively impact the world, perhaps in ways we will never know. I’d like to return to questions of how we can make a difference during our lives — in whatever sphere(s) we deem important — by putting on a spectrum the notion of hoop jumping on one end and the concept of legacy work on the other. Please allow me to engage in some Sunday meandering….

First, some definitions may be in order here. By “hoop jumping” I refer to schooling, credentialing, networking, and gaining initial experience. These steps take us to where we’d like to be; they position us. (This is why it is rare for a post-graduate first job to be a true “dream job.”)

By “legacy work” I mean our core contributions and accomplishments, the stuff we’d like to be remembered for in the longer run and by people we care about. In the realm of vocation, it may involve creative or intellectual work, achievement in business, service to others, building something, activism and social change work, or some type of innovation or invention.

Some people jump through their requisite hoops early, completing the heart of their formal learning at a relatively young age, promptly engaging in the necessary networking and positioning, and embarking on a long-term career that brings them much satisfaction. Certainly there may be setbacks and diversions along the way, but they start building their body of legacy work fairly early in life.

For many others, however, that process will include stops and starts, ups and downs, and recasting that often requires jumping through new hoops. A career is rarely completely linear, moving irresistibly upward until we reach some pinnacle and then retire. Furthermore, opportunities to do meaningful work, especially that which may fall into the legacy category, do not necessarily build toward some big crescendo close to the end. Whether they are handed to us or we create them, we rarely have full control over timing and sequencing!

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I realize that I have been talking mainly in the context of careers here. Nevertheless, as I’ve suggested before, one’s legacy work need not be vocational in nature. It can include parenting, caregiving, an engaging avocation, a deeply meaningful hobby, or charitable work. For some, a “day job” may pay the bills, but an unrelated project or endeavor brings the deeper meaning.

Over the years, I have witnessed these scenarios many times. With some people, the discovery of legacy work has actually been a re-discovery, marking a return to interests and passions they put on the shelf in years past.

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Let me also acknowledge the sense of great economic and social privilege implicit in what I’m writing about. Those of us who are in a position to devote a good chunk of our waking hours to endeavors that provide satisfaction, meaning, accomplishment, and even joy are very fortunate. Countless millions of people around the world do not have that luxury; they are living in survival mode.

I hesitate to characterize such blessings as constituting a finger wagging obligation to make the most of them and to contribute something good to the world. That said, we live in a world in serious need of more joy, creativity, humanity, and compassion. Who wants to look back at a life only to see a lot of wonderful opportunities squandered and wasted?

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Looking at the tortoise and the hare folktale, I personally identify more with the tortoise, at least when it comes to this general subject. In fact, I look with admiration at those folks who have figured things out much earlier than I did. I started this blog in 2008, over twenty years into my career as a lawyer and law professor. I now understand that it took me that long to forge a sufficiently wise, authentic, and mature worldview to start writing for a more public audience on the topics that frequent these pages.

Viktor Frankl on finding meaning in the face of great adversity

The good folks at Open Culture have given us a video interview and an essay featuring Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor, psychologist, and author of the bestselling Man’s Search for Meaning. Here’s a snippet:

Among all of the psychologists, philosophers, and religious figures who have wrestled with these universal truths about the human condition, perhaps none has been put to the test quite like neurologist and psychotherapist Viktor Frankl, who survived Auschwitz, but lost his mother, father, brother, and first wife to the camps. . . . After his camp was liberated in 1945, Frankl published an extraordinary book about his experiences: Man’s Search for Meaning, “a strangely hopeful book,” writes Matthew Scully at First Things, “still a staple on the self-help shelves” though it is “inescapably a book about death.” . . .

Frankl’s thesis echoes those of many sages, from Buddhists to Stoics to his 20th century Existentialist contemporaries: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Not only did he find hope and meaning in the midst of terrible suffering, but after his unimaginable loss, he “remarried, wrote another twenty-five books, founded a school of psychotherapy, built an institute bearing his name in Vienna,” and generally lived a long, happy life. How? . . .

The interview with Frankl runs a little under a half hour and emphasizes his ideas about finding meaning in the face of extraordinarily difficult times.

Many readers of this blog are dealing with their own significant challenges, often through the experience of work. And while even the most horrific work experiences cannot be equated with genocide, I have observed here that bullying and mobbing behaviors on the job can reflect, in virulence if not in scale, the eliminationist instincts that also drive mass killings.

Accordingly, for those who have been so targeted at work, it may be helpful to become familiar with the work of a man who managed to recover from exposure to horrible atrocities and to rebuild his life. I hesitate to characterize Dr. Frankl’s work as “must read,” because anything smacking of advice, guidance, or inspiration toward a road to recovery is intensely personal as to its individual resonance. Nevertheless, I think that many will find it beneficial.

 

David Brooks and his “moral bucket list”

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In a piece for Sunday’s New York Times, columnist David Brooks writes about “The Moral Bucket List,” a sort of personal reckoning he has experienced about the importance of leading a meaningful, positively impactful life:

ABOUT once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. . . . When I meet such a person it brightens my whole day.

A few years ago I realized that I wanted to be a bit more like those people. I realized that if I wanted to do that I was going to have to work harder to save my own soul. I was going to have to have the sort of moral adventures that produce that kind of goodness. I was going to have to be better at balancing my life.

He goes on to talk about two main sets of virtues:

It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful.

A life built primarily around the résumé virtues, suggests Brooks, will prove to be a more empty one.

Brooks’s moral bucket list is comprised of the “experiences one should have on the way toward the richest possible inner life.” They include a shift toward humility, confronting self-defeat and our own weaknesses, accepting “redemptive assistance from outside,” experiencing and giving “energizing love” with others, finding our callings, and embracing a sense of conscience.

In his opinion piece, he introduces exemplars of these virtues, such as General and President Dwight Eisenhower overcoming a severe temper, Catholic social activist Dorothy Day surmounting an early life of indulgence and reckless behavior, and U.S. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins deciding to devote her life to workers’ rights.

It’s an excellent article, very appropriate and wise for the age in which we live.

On the political scale, Brooks is regarded as a moderate to conservative commentator. Yet, to his great credit, he cites the lives and examples of men and women spanning a broad political and social spectrum, both in the article and in his new book that expounds upon these ideas and stories, The Road to Character (2015). Brooks’s article caused me to run out and buy the book, and my preliminary page flips tell me that it will be a worthwhile read.

Positive echoes

Brooks’s moral bucket list concept intersects nicely with the messages of other authors I’ve written about, who urge upon us the importance of finding our life purposes, living compassionate lives, and making a positive difference with the time we are here. I think these works are most resonant to those in the second half of life (or close to it), but anyone may benefit from them. For more:

Defining, refining, creating, and redefining your “body of work” (2015)

Taking stock at midlife: Time for reading assignments (2014)

Holiday reads: Fueling heart, mind, and soul (2014)

“The Shift: Ambition to Meaning” (2014)

Transitions and inner callings (2014)

“Follow your bliss”? Parsing Joseph Campbell’s famous advice (2012)

What’s your legacy work? (And how can you de-clutter way to it?) (2011)

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Does a sense of purpose contribute to a longer life?

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(image courtesy of clipartpanda.com)

In a piece for the Huffington Post, Shelley Emling summons research suggesting that living with a sense of purpose and direction can extend our stays in this life as well:

What’s the key to long life? Is it clean living? Lots of exercise? An abundance of vegetables? Actually, the key to long life may be something a bit more intangible: a sense of purpose.

Researchers studying longevity say those who feel a sense of purpose and direction in life may indeed live longer, no matter what their age.

She quotes Patrick Hill of Carleton University (Canada), lead researcher in a study suggesting that a strong sense of life purpose may have “protective effects”:

“Our findings point to the fact that finding a direction for life, and setting overarching goals for what you want to achieve, can help you actually live longer, regardless of when you find your purpose. . . . So the earlier someone comes to a direction for life, the earlier these protective effects may be able to occur.”

Many potential sources

Although this blog is mainly about work and workers, let’s acknowledge right away that we can create or discover a sense of purpose in a variety of ways, including employment, an avocation, a hobby, or volunteer and philanthropic work. It can come out of devotion to others, such as parenting, caregiving, or helping animals. It may be inspired by a broader cause or a personal objective. Faith and spirituality may enter the picture as well.

It seems intuitive, doesn’t it? In fact, the capacity to develop our life purpose is one of the major distinguishing characteristics between humans and other living beings. Surely there are days when the life of a beloved dog or cat — basically hanging out, eating good food, playing when you feel like it, and getting lots of TLC — looks pretty good! But for we human folk, having a strong, motivating sense of purpose and direction is among the blessings that makes life worthwhile.

Wisdom at fifty-something

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Charles D. Hayes is a self-taught philosopher and adult educator whose body of work urges us to look beyond the superficial aspects of modern life and create lives of enduring meaning. Among his many writings, my favorite is his 2004 book, The Rapture of Maturity: A Legacy of Lifelong Learning. Here’s one of the many wonderful snippets from it:

Most of us have spent the first half of our lives denying the inevitability of our own death, but something about turning 50 enables us to penetrate this barricade of self-deception just enough to stay dimly aware that the end of life is forthcoming. For those of us fortunate enough to have lived this long and remain in reasonably good health, I believe this period is the premium apportionment of life. This is a time when we can separate the wheat of wisdom from the chaff of experience.

Lest anyone under 50 take offense at my seeming endorsement of the view that one has to reach the half-century mark to accumulate a reasonable amount of wisdom, be assured that I speak with authority only about myself on this matter! That said, I think it’s fair to suggest that many of us squander big chunks of our earlier years attending to less meaningful endeavors. The question becomes whether we will “wise up” in time to live life to the fullest and contribute something meaningful to this world.

If we pass on this opportunity, then we may end up like the protagonist in Leo Tolstoy’s masterful 1886 novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Ivan Ilylich is a successful lawyer, public servant, and family man who, when confronted with his mortality by a fatal illness, finds himself tormented by the question of whether he has lived a meaningful life. The final scenes of the book are memorable and unsettling.

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We can create meaningful lives in many ways. It may be through relationships such as parenting, caregiving, friendships, and partnerships. It can be through voluntary, community, or avocational activities.

To the extent we create this meaning through our work, we must strive mightily to resist the superficial trappings and excesses of careers and occupational cultures. I see these dynamics playing out all the time in higher education, and I have not been fully immune from them. In fact, as I read how Ivan Ilyich — whose professional resume would document a successful career in law and public service — anguished over the life he had chosen to live, I silently wondered if I might feel the same way when my time comes.

Yup, this is pretty maudlin stuff, isn’t it? But I think it’s the lesson that writers like Hayes and Tolstoy are trying to teach us. We can pay attention now, or ignore it and possibly live to regret it later. And the earlier we understand this simple truth, the better, yes?

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Go here for Hayes’s Self-University blog.

Go here for Hayes’s September University blog.

Go here for more about Hayes’s published books and essays.

Here is a free version of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich (Maude translation). Inexpensive print and e-book editions of that popular translation and a more recent (and well-received) translation by Pevear & Volokhonsky are available at bookstores.

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Addendum: Soon after posting this piece, I found this excellent essay by Fred Branfman, posted to AlterNet: “Embracing Life-Affirming Death Awareness: How to Transform Yourself and Possibly Save Human Civilization.” If this general topic interests you, it’s worth a serious read.

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