Writing about family history has helped sort out many mysteries, tested my memory and forced reconsideration of not-quite forgotten events. The writing forces the thinking to a conclusion. That light also slays ‘ghosts’ and hauntings evaporate. Perhaps it can work on my own history.
The ‘ghost of employment past’ followed me for six years. I dreamt of nonspecific offices, meetings and processes: there’s unfinished business and uncompleted projects. With time, disappointments have less hold but some demons of despair and hallucinations of reconciliation hovered.
At the point where my employment ended, my mind was full of administrivia and organisational history. That noise washed away with the winter rains.
Some memories of meaningful results and constructive engagement remain unassailed in a happy compartment with occasional suggestions that my work was woven into the lives of others for a greater good.
My early career was fortunate though at some cost to my education, but as a choice of necessity, it is free from regret. I wished to do something useful and build securely. Volunteer work provided recommendations and employment which offered the opportunity for service to a developing institution. There was no training program but to read the rules and engage with ‘the elders’. These people, some ex-military others from large corporations and several with international experience, were open-hearted mentors. Issues were discussed frankly and opinions expected, sought and considered. Decisions were final and loyalty built naturally from this genuine engagement. I was fortunate to have started my career as they were ending theirs.
Of course, there were mistakes and misunderstandings but persistent zero-sum malice was rare and unadmired. It was often said and widely believed, that ‘our staff are our most important asset’.
In time ’continuing’ employment was offered – and gratefully accepted. The institution had its own superannuation scheme and new employees had the choice of schemes; one more advantageous for those who considered short-term employment and the other more advantageous for those who were interested in permanent employment. Most employees took the first option initially and had the option of changing, once, after 12 months. I followed that course as ‘prudent’ but after a year changed schemes as I considered this would be my permanent place of work. In the late 1970s it was still possible to resign in a huff and find another job, so making a commitment was not what everyone wanted to do.
‘Continuing’ didn’t mean staying in the same position; hopefully, skills and experience would open new challenges. I moved into an area at the heart of the institution with an early mentor. On her retirement, a ‘new broom’ swept enervation through the unit. I sought an escape including an external appointment to a State Government department moving to a regional city. The thoughtful public servant who chaired the selection panel encouraged me to stay where I was. I don’t know what he might have said to my referees, who knew of my anxiety, but within a short space of time, I was offered a role in a newly amalgamated group within the institution. I was grateful for the challenge. It built skills, broadened perspective and rebuilt confidence.
After six months I had the opportunity to continue in the new role or ‘return to the centre’, which had changed from ‘gentlemanly’ to more ‘transactional’; reflecting 'the real world.' The area was one in which I had previous experience and where I was able to enjoy a long tenure with supportive supervisors.
After promotions, I was ready for a new challenge and one was provided in a growing area with a ‘corporate’ reputation. The move allowed a respected older staff member with health problems to move from a more stressful senior position to the one I had vacated. Mutual loyalty was still strong. The new area was about institutional promotion and development; important to viability, diversity and certainly ‘useful’. The positive image of the area was well deserved.
The wider environment was changing however and the institution more broadly did not respond well to a tougher financial environment. The trend to ‘corporatisation’ was probably unrecognisable to corporations. General poor people management and the end of an obligatory retirement age resulted in disengagement and low productivity. Redundancies were inevitable and occurred in waves across the wider ‘industry’ as the income tide receded. Blinded by wishful thinking, I was unaware of the consequential trend that saw the demise of institutional loyalty. Expensive consultants seem to have sourced their fees with the concept that staff were in fact the organisations largest liability. Voices for better basic day-to-day management and thoughtful training were not persistent enough. More redundancies loomed. At the same time, I was exhausted by a series of significant changes following staff losses within my unit and was obliged, though happy, to reduce an inordinate credit of leave.
I had naively taken the view that the welcomed pressure to reduce my leave would allow me to refresh myself before the final six years of employment. Meanwhile, the redundancy redux ramped up; significant losses were predicted and unproductive though entertaining speculation was rife about what it might mean for particular individuals. I had demonstrated flexibility in times of previous staff crises and the capacity to help in any transition. While acknowledging that ‘no one was safe’. I imagined what a final stretch and reconstruction might look like. At the same time, I was grateful for the opportunity to take part in a training program where I felt amongst ‘my tribe’ building professional depth.
We were to be informed about the outcome of a review of staffing in a mass meeting and understood that after the presentation we should leave the meeting without further discussion to await individual meetings for those whose careers would be impacted. Comparing the charts for the ‘now’ and ‘future’ structure, I had no place. The subsequent meeting confirmed this. My bland acceptance of the situation was a surprise to myself and, I think, to the others at the meeting. As a non-negotiable fait accompli, there was nothing to engage with.
As my emotions had gone, my brain took charge. To preserve the acquired superannuation benefits I would need to find another similar position elsewhere (in an industry where redundancies were rife) or take early retirement. I didn’t know what to believe about myself or, what, until that point had been, ‘my’ institution. My redundant view of mutual loyalty, and self-assessment as making a useful contribution evaporated. Everything looked different. Unexpectedly, forgotten injustices rose from their resting places to taunt me.
My task was simply to clean up, provide a helpful hand-over and get out of the way before the Ides of March.
In a busy old office, far from my daytime home for the previous three and a half decades, external advisors guided the transition from employment. I had an interesting chat with the fellow assigned to me. We talked about military history. He provided me with a workbook designed to help me make a detailed assessment of my life to answer the question; ‘What do you want to do now?’ The exercise was helpful personally but gave me no answer to the immediate question. My brain told me to apply for jobs but no one was interested in considering an ‘old bloke’ whose name was so tied to a particular place. I reluctantly declared myself ‘retired’ some six years before I expected to do so.
For anyone who has a choice: don’t just ‘retire’. Have a plan to evolve from one activity to the next; go part-time, develop volunteer networks, travel and learn as you wish, enjoy the freedom (and the frugality) - but also have an optimistic purpose.
I found two years of part-time volunteer administrative work restored my self-esteem and showed me how to be disinterested without being uninterested. Ironically, employment had interrupted my education and I’m currently enrolled in an M. Phil. at ACU which I hope will produce a lively historical biography of a Washington Territory newspaperman. The ghost of employment past can now rest and hopefully will not try to sneak through fissures in the cosmos.
There is no ghost of employment present; rather a spirit of inquisitiveness. Any future spirit will be friendly and, like history, bring discovery of an unknown country.
|'I lift up my eyes to the mountains…'|