Beyond the Occupational Identity

Friday, July 4, 2014

I have nothing to report from my actual life at the moment, decided to look through the archives to see if there was anything partially written but not yet posted that could be finished and put up.

And look, here is something.

I was working on this in the fall as I thought through issues surrounding early retirement and financial independence, about working and not working, and what that all means and where it leads people. Obviously this is something that the early retirement bloggers focus on a lot, and nicoleandmaggie wrote post about how economists define retirement that I thought was interesting. (They also have a good post about the concept of financial independence. UPDATE: And another one about identity and jobs.)

So one of the things I decided to do while thinking about all of this was to re-read part of a book I bought a long time ago, called How to Do Things Right by L. Rust Hills that is a compilation of short works and essays written by the long-time fiction editor at Esquire magazine, who had an interesting and varied career over many decades.

The section I wanted to re-read is called “How to Retire at 41, Or, Life Among the Pursuits.” It was originally published in 1973 as a book called How to Retire at 41: Dropping Out of the Rat Race without Going Down the Drain.

As is often the case when I read an actual book, written before the advent of the internet (or at least before the internet as we know it), by an actual writer, I am struck by how much better it is than so much of what I usually read. Which almost always makes me think I should stop spending so much time on the internet and start reading more actual books.


So I was going to write a nice post about this whole thing, with a point and everything, and hopefully someday I will actually manage to do that, but in the meantime I decided I should just to give you an excerpt from the book. Because it provides some good background and if I ever do get around to writing more, I can just reference this.

The general point, which I’ve been thinking about for a long time, is that one of the challenges of being “financially independent” or “retiring” (sometimes those terms are used interchangeably, sometimes not) is that much of our society is built around work. People typically define themselves by occupation; one of the most common introductory questions in America is “What do you do?” (Which doesn’t mean that it’s not a weird question, it totally is, but nonetheless it is very common.)

Having a job provides a great deal of structure to your life; if you don’t have a job, you need to figure all kinds of things out on your own. And you need to have enough of a conception of yourself that you can give a reasonable answer when you meet new people and they ask you what you do.

About half way through “How to Retire at 41,” the author begins discussing the concept of the “occupational identity” — how you identify yourself with what you do for a living — and considers how one can move beyond that. And I think what he says is worth thinking about.

So here it is:

Beyond the Occupational Identity

Remember that statement of Montaigne’s that we began with, way back when:

If you plan to withdraw into yourself, first prepare yourself a welcome.

We now see it isn’t just a Comprehensive Day Plan you need, or a country place or an old time-consuming boat or an engrossing hobby or whatever (although these help, God knows); what’s needed is some conception of yourself — of, that is, your self — now that you won’t be working. You don’t really realize, until you quit work, just how much of your conception of your self comes from your work — not just from what you do, but how you do it.

Your basic occupational identity — what you did, or “were” — permitted a lot of amplification by the way you did what you were. When you were working, you weren’t (not in your own mind, anyway) just ” an accountant” or “in fabrics” or “one of the salesmen” or “an insurance man” or whatever. You were also the way you did the work: you were the kindly boss, or the efficient second-in-command, or the talented idea-man or the only one in the office who got along with the secretaries, or some such. Whatever you were, you had some sense of yourself doing it, some recognition of the role you’d chosen to play or the role you’d been forced into.

Let’s take fishing, which can be either a work-for-pay occupation or a leisure-retirement pursuit. Say you were a fisherman when you worked, that’s what you did, that’s who you were, a fisherman. Okay, now there’s also the style you used when you were a fisherman. A fisherman-by-trade can be, for instance, kindly like Manuel or whatever his name was (Spencer Tracy) in Captains Courageous; or he can be surly like Ahab in Moby-Dick. There are presumably an infinite number of ways to be a professional fisherman on this kindly-surly scale, and kindly-surly is only one of many polarizations of personality traits, as you know — although, admittedly, perhaps the most important one.

But now, suppose that when you quit work you took up fishing as a retirement pursuit. One assumes here that you weren’t a fisherman-by-trade before, but something else; because you’d never retire from being a fisherman at age forty-one and then take up fishing as a retirement pursuit unless it was just to make fun of me. Say, though, you were (used to be) an insurance salesman, and now at forty-one you can quit work and live off your commissions from the premiums we pay on the policies you sold us years and years ago. You decide to take up fishing as a retirement pursuit. Now the way you fish in retirement is the key thing. You can do it in a kind of elegant, heroic, upper-classy, sportsman-type way — big-game fishing like Hemingway, or elegant dry-fly angling with delicate lightweight rods — that sort of way. Or you can take it up in a kind of messy, kindly, puttery, lower-classish way — in an old rowboat or fishing off the bridge with the neighborhood kids.

You see what I’m saying? I’m saying that once the specific, defining, perhaps confining, at any rate identifying occupation is removed from your life by your retirement from work, then you style or manner, your “you-ness,” becomes the all-important thing, because there isn’t anything much else. The way you do things, the way in fact you do nothing (now that there’s nothing to do) that’s now the only self you have. If when you retire you do some fishing to fill your time, you can sit out there in your rowboat all day long with the pole in your hands, and they’re still not going to say of you, “Oh, he’s a fisherman,” because you aren’t a fisherman. You used to be an insurance man. Now you’re nothing. You’re nothing except the way you do nothing. Everyone thinks of you as nothing — unless you do your nothing in a way that identifies you to people; unless, for instance, you do your fishing (or whatever) in a puttery, kindly sort of way, say, in which case they’ll say, “Oh, he’s (you, that is, are) a kindly soul, just as sweet and gentle as can be.” Or maybe they’ll describe you, identify you, “Oh, he really stirs things up, a kind of troublemaker, but fun to be around.” Personality’s a part of it, of course, but it’s more a matter of individuality, a kind of amplification of personality by consistency of style and manner.

With your occupational identity gone, you have to find another existence for yourself. Remember Thoreau leaning on the fence post, lying on the ice, and so on? Well, now imagine he’s fishing. When he fishes, he fishes as Thoreau, not as a fisherman. He’s not a fisherman, and he knows it. Like him, you have to be able to have the fishing (or whatever the specific nondefining, nonoccupational routine or pursuit you’re up to) removed or replaced, and still be left with enough particularity of how it is done (not what is done) to provide a sufficient sense of self for yourself and others.

Beyond the occupational identity, that’s all there is.