Steve is a professor who specializes in Medieval Christianity. Although he has tenure, a good pension plan, and a lovely tree-shaded campus to work at, he recently found himself wondering whether he’s wasted his life by devoting most of it to John Wycliffe, the first person to translate the Bible into English. The sales of Steve’s many books about Wycliffe are pretty much limited to the students and professors of colleges that offer courses on Medieval Christianity. Steve has never been approached on the street, or even in a bookstore, and asked for his autograph, or featured in a magazine spread of the 100 hottest Wycliffe scholars in the world.
But then one of his books saved a student’s life! It seems that there was a crazed shooter at Florida State University who got inside one of the university buildings and began firing away. One student, hearing the gunfire, began running down a hall, away from the shooting, but a bullet hit him right in the middle of his back. Fortunately, he was wearing his backpack, inside of which was one of Steve’s thick tomes on Wycliffe, where the bullet safely lodged. “That’s what happens when you write impenetrable prose,” Steve said. He will never again doubt that his life has made a difference.
Of course, Medieval History professors are not the only people who want to remain relevant and continue to have an impact on the world. Lately I’ve been running across a slew of people of a certain age who are in an almost existential crisis about the meaning of their lives. They’ve spent decades working at one career, and then their organizations downsized, or ceased to exist and they found themselves suddenly unemployed. Although they’re eligible for retirement, these folks immediately begin sending their resumes to every possible job opening within a 100-mile radius. Others try networking on Linkedin or with friends to see if they know of any openings in their field. But often, after many weeks of rejections, it begins to dawn on them that no one wants to hire an expert typewriter repairman or elevator operator. These folks might as well have spent their careers as sandal-bearers or scullery maids. Even if their skills are still in demand, companies are reluctant to offer a job to a 60-something-year-old bricklayer with arthritis or a beer-bellied roofer whose medications periodically make him dizzy.
So they begin scouring the want ads with a different eye: What are the jobs they would still be capable of doing? Standing at a fast-food counter for eight hours straight taking orders for deep fried tacos? Greeting shoppers at Walmart? Doing cold-call marketing for a home-improvement firm? Selling Amway? None of the available jobs pay even a fraction as much as they once earned as a bowling pinsetter, let alone their top earnings as an 8-track tape salesman. The truth is they can earn more opening a lemonade stand in their front yard than they can with almost any job in the want ads.
So they keep looking, but not nearly as diligently. They begin sleeping in later, taking longer to eat breakfast and read the newspaper. They take little trips, visiting friends and relatives with spare bedrooms and beer in the fridge, or begin volunteering at the food bank or tutoring kids. But ask them what they’re doing and you get all kinds of obfuscation. They’ve become “independent contractors” or “consultants.” They’re putting together a business plan and trying to raise capital (by playing the lottery). They’re on sabbatical, or going to school for retraining. (The retraining often involves clay and a potter’s wheel, or a guitar and sheet music.)
For a generation of people who never really wanted to work in the first place, it is funny to see so many of us in denial about the fact that there aren’t many paying jobs around that any employer has us as the first choice to hire. When we were growing up, the science fiction fantasy was that machines would take over most of the drudgery and free us to have more and more leisure time. Well, the future has arrived, although maybe it’s not only machines who are doing our work, but a bunch of poorly paid workers in Asia. Still, we’ve been indoctrinated into believing that unless we have a full time job, we no longer can make a difference in the world. We think we’ve become obsolete.
Instead, we should realize that our lives have made a difference to lots of people and will continue to do so, even if we spend our mornings drinking coffee and doing the crossword puzzle. The world is built upon the foundation that we’ve laid. The books we’ve written will save people’s lives, even if they don’t have a chance to read them, because they’re too busy tweeting their friends about the website they just found that reinterprets the Bible into hip-hop. We can still use our skills and resources to help people, to create community, to share knowledge, and to make people laugh.
Call yourself whatever you want — a consultant, a retiree, or an unemployed go-go dancer. But above all, realize that you have become an elder: Your experience and wisdom are things that no one else can contribute. And who knows how many lives you might still save.