Getting off the Career Ladder or How to Enjoy Semi-Retirement Now

Nearly three quarters of the workforce is disengaged at work according to a Harvard Business Review article from June 2013. No, surprise, right? You know these people. You work with them, you listen to their complaints. In fact, some of them are you. So, I shouldn't be surprised that a steady stream of people have stopped me in the hall, walked me out of the building, or called to tell me how much they respect my decision to leave my crazy-big job as an academic division head at a large urban community college in order to return sanity to my life. Instead of managing the equivalent of a small community college, I've opted to lead a project for a VP. I won't have staff or a budget... and I'm excited about that.
"At first, I did the rational thing..."
(c) 2016 David Borden

These folks ask me questions in hushed voices. They look askance and divulge how disillusioned they are with their careers. They confide how their bosses are disengaged to the point of working against the interests of their organization, how they're stuck at a dead end, how the career ladder is a trap or a big lie. They tell me how I've inspired them. They want to know how I found the courage to cut against the cultural grain.

They ask, "How do you like your new job?"

"It's absolutely awesome!" I reply... and I mean it. I love going to work, now.

"How did you pull this off?"

I smile. "I thought about it a lot," I say. "At first, I did the rational thing, I made a list of pros and cons. But those failed me. In the end, this decision was based on my values. These decisions-- the big ones, the hard ones, the ones that lurk in the gray areas-- are more about who we are and who we want to be than weighing pros and cons."

I keep thinking about this employee I used to have, (I'll call him Stephen) who kept a running tally of retirement v. death notices that came over email. "There are more death notices," he told me, "I have to get out of this place." He laughed nervously. A few months later, he quit and moved to Mexico to pursue an opportunity to run an elementary school.

The other day I received a terribly sad email from the college announcing that a long time employee retired on Dec. 31 and died on January 8. I thought of Stephen chasing his dreams and fleeing his fear of dying at work.

But I don't know if dying at work is all that bad... if you do it right. If you don't let those people own you.

Retirement for the 21st century worker, starting with the tail end of the Baby Boomers, the Xers, and everyone after, is a myth, a pipe dream, a fantasy. We'll live too long to pay for such an extended period of unemployment. I know an 85 year old teacher who still works. He "retired" more than 20 years ago. His pension doesn't cover his bills anymore. He's outlived it.

The numbers of "retirees" who are working part time has skyrocketed according to an article in U.S. News and World Report.

cartoon of a man with a long white beard working at a computer in 2046 with a futuristic skyline. Copyright 2016 by David Borden
"Working in 2046."
(c)2016 David Borden
It stands to reason: if I'm going to have to work in retirement anyway, why kill myself to save enough money to live without income for 2 to 3 decades? What if I bust my butt to save an enormous sum to end up like the guy who died 8 days later? My risk management assessment leads me down one path: start working part-time in a job with less stress and that provides intellectual challenge. I should just continue working... albeit, in a way that is friendlier to my idea of happiness.

Might as well get started... Why wait?

Retirement was invented for blue collar workers. Riveting skyscrapers or operating a jackhammer when you're 70 years old are not good ideas for anyone. But for white collar workers, sitting at a computer screen into my "golden years" doesn't sound so bad. Sounds better than being the greeter at Walmart. In fact, research out of the Centers for Disease Control  shows that older working adults are actually healthier than those who go into full retirement.

All that said, I've restructured my day job to have one day off per week. It's the best of both worlds: I still have a stable job with health insurance and a pension, but more time for myself.

Where will you find me on that day off?

I'll be painting, writing, walking the wooded trails around Austin. In other words, I'll be doing whatever I damn well please! And I'll be doing it for the next 40 years instead of waiting and grumbling for half-a-lifetime.
19th c. Snakes and Ladders game looks amazing like 
most corporate org charts

I don't believe in "climbing the career ladder" unless that makes you happy. For that lucky 25% who love the corporate climb, more power to you. Seek your bliss in it. The other 75% of us would like to have time to do other things. For us, more time at work, in ever-increasingly responsible jobs reaps more money, but also more stress, and more disillusionment. It grinds us down. It saps our energy, our optimism, and our belief in the future.

Most of the climbers I know aren't happy. The more they work, the more their lives stay exactly the same. Instead of being unhappy in a small house, they're unhappy in a big one. They're the same people with the same problems, making the same mistakes, living in quiet desperation... just a little wealthier.

People want a sliver of happiness to call their own. They want a spark of joy in their week. They want a nugget of self-determination. Getting that Ph.D. or becoming a VP may sound great, but these paths can hide insidious traps. For these people a better path may lie in descending the ladder, staying put, or abandoning it, altogether.

We need a new metaphor. Put the ladder away. It's linear. It doesn't work for everyone. Brush of your wings and try them out. Perhaps there is a whole sky awaiting...

The Year of the Phoenix

#career #careerladder #retirement #earlyretirement #semiretirement #happiness #inspiration #work


  1. Excellent life choice! When I was pushed off the rat race treadmill 2 1/2 years ago it was the best thing ever. Now doing free lance work and consulting on a 'semi-retired' basis (code for - being lazy and just paying the bills) is great and amazingly didn't mean downsizing the lifestyle. The stresses are different than that of the 9-5, but no greater.

    So now Tamara is the only one in the family with a career! Everyone else is 'retired' or not yet of working age and I bet Ruby takes some alternative path also.

    1. There are only "alternative" paths left. The "traditional" jobs are all gone.


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