What are you working for?

It seems like we spend most of our adult lives working – eight hours plus per day on the job and another two or three hours in household chores. In times past, we could multiply these hours by thirty or forty years on the same job. Today, those years may be applied to a diverse number of jobs. Nevertheless, work occupies much of our time and energy. Why? What are we working for? Are our standard answers to these questions really true? Are we achieving the goals we want to accomplish?

I can remember my first job at the age of fifteen. All I wanted was to have my own money to spend on whatever I wanted. No longer would my mother be able to dictate my spending. It turns out, she didn’t have to; life took care of that. There was bus fare, uniforms, the cost of lunch, toiletries, and I had to support my own habits. Taxes! No one told me that the government was allowed to take a portion of my money for taxes. My first big purchase was a folk guitar which cost $75. I had to save up for it over several paydays on the layaway plan. It wasn’t long before I realized I had to work for necessities before I could afford pleasures. As I grew older living expenses became larger along with taxes, and I continued to learn I wasn’t in complete control of my money.

My mom’s generation had a better understanding of delayed gratification (of course this is a broad generality assuming that everyone was like my mom). They knew how to save and wait for the ability to finance their dreams. Their goals were to see their children achieve and accomplish more than they had. Many of them left the Deep South and the life of agriculture for better opportunities (least wise they thought it was for better opportunities). Working in factories and on assembly lines replaced the seasonal work of sowing and harvesting crops. However, many of them still worked from sunup to sundown, and the cost of living was harsh as the winter weather. Yet the sacrifice seemed worth it if their children were able to get a quality education that would lead to upward mobility. Some of us became teachers, doctors, lawyers, and preachers as a result of their hard labor. Others simply followed their parents into the workforce of steel mills, factories, and domestic work. My mom and her generation would say they were working for posterity.

I certainly can’t speak for my entire generation, but I venture to say we want similar things for our children. However, we also want upward mobility for ourselves. Delayed gratification is not celebrated. We want it faster. We want more and we are willing to make changes to get it. We are not the generation who will remain in one job for thirty years. We are not the people who will live in the same neighborhood for a lifetime. Our educational choices include both public and private institutions. Our occupations include entrepreneurship and multiple streams of income. There is extended family disconnect because we will move across the country or across the world for perceived opportunities, financial or otherwise. It seems like we are working for a better house, a better car, better benefits, better vacations, more prestige and power. We have more debt than the previous generations, but we know what we’re working for. Do we?

Late in life I had an epiphany that I tried to teach my children and grandchildren. It was a plan to enjoy life more whether in work or in leisure. Here is how the plan works. Choose a career path that you believe you would enjoy doing. In other words, you love it so much you would consider doing it for free. If you are going to spend a great deal of your time and energy working, why not enjoy the work? Pursue the necessary education for it. It may not include a four-year college degree; it may be a trade school or an apprenticeship. Whatever the educational requirements are, pay as you go so that you don’t carry debt into your future. Curtail your spending desires. Determine your real needs. Do you need a new car? Do you need to buy a house now? Do you need to take luxury vacations every year. Whatever you determine your real needs to be map out a budget of time and money to achieve those needs/wants efficiently and frugally. Your dreams/goals don’t have to look like anyone else’s vision. Don’t compete with your peers or your neighbors. Don’t be swayed by media or advertisements. Choose your path, but don’t be afraid to start over or to reinvent yourself. I’m pleased to say one of my sons and one of my grands seem to be pursuing this plan and are happy for it.

I discovered early on that I love being a teacher, so it became easy to implement this gift/talent/calling into multiple areas of my life. Although I’m not a morning person, when I arrive in front of my students, I come alive. If you know anything about teaching, you know this is not the profession for mega-bucks. However, there are major benefits to being a mother like the same off days as your children. Being a teacher has met my goals and dreams in so many ways. I worked to spend time with my family and to travel. My children and grandchildren were afforded summer vacations (and sometimes spring break vacations) since they were very young. My sons and I set out to see every amusement park in America. We didn’t make it to all of them, but we certainly had fun trying. My grandchildren and I made a point of going to museums and beaches, as well as visiting our family members across the states. They got to meet great aunts and uncles, and cousins across the nation. Being a teacher also means life-long learning, so every vacation had an educational component. My goals were simple, but I knew what I was working for, and it hasn’t changed much since I retired.

While I’d love to downsize my home (we are empty nesters now), trading higher cost for a smaller property would interrupt our goals. My husband came out of a three-year retirement to pursue his artistic vocation (www.donwilsonartist900.com) and play golf. I retired but I still find time to be a substitute teacher during the school year. I also volunteer as a GED teacher. The extra money is for traveling and writing conferences. We work to fulfill our personal dreams and goals. We also work to spend more time with the family and our friends; to help others (charities and volunteerism); and to produce our craft (fine art for my husband and books for me). We have reinvented ourselves several times over the years. Teaching and writing are always at the center of my desires. I drive a pretty old car. I’ve held on to clothes until they came back in style. I’ve driven to more vacation spots than I have ever flown to because I’m cost conscious. However, I am not deprived of the things I enjoy the most – the things that I work for – the things that are important to me.

The cost of living and taxes are not going away. We all work to pay these, but what else are we working for? I would love to hear your perspective whether you are very happy or somewhat disillusioned. What can you do to make your labor truly worth it? What are your true priorities? There are no right or wrong answers. This is not a competition. This is about what’s right for you and what brings you the most satisfaction in life.

Focus on your wants and needs. Become proactive in your choices. Forget about competing in the rat race. Help others along the way. Work to live and enjoy life.

Don and I enjoying life with our dog, Lady Love

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