serene ambition™

transforming the culture of aging

Resignation at Work

Posted by Jim Selman on 10/18/06

I have been working a lot lately with organizations and, in particular, with their cultures and attempts to change them. Given my growing interest in the culture of aging, I have been paying a lot of attention to what people say about how the ‘retirement’ process works, particularly in the Public Service and other large bureaucracies. The gist of what I hear is that people do their darnedest to ‘get away’ from all the bullshit, while still ‘hanging on’ for dear life until they qualify for their promised pension. I have heard almost no one say they don’t want to leave as soon as they can, and the sooner, the better. What a sad comment on the institutional culture when we consider that these people have given the better part of their lives to an organization they can’t wait to leave.

A second, perhaps sadder observation is how little acknowledgement people receive when they retire. Close acquaintances chip in for a gift, friends throw a party, you might get a commemorative pin or a piece of jewelry, but that’s it. One day you’re juggling emails, phone calls and meetings to help shape a policy, provide a service or create something out of nothing, and the next you are on the sidelines, no longer juggling and wondering what the whole thing was all about anyway. No formal letters of appreciation, not even a form letter from the head of the organization. No recognition of the events you missed as your children were growing up because of work. No accounting for the thousands of hours of unpaid overtime, unused sick leave, unspent vacation time. Were you ever really there? Did you make a difference? It seems as if, like the shifting sands, your contribution is too soon forgotten.

I have seen this happening up close and personal with a number of clients and friends. The pattern of insensitivity and indifference to the individual is pervasive. It would be tragic were it not for the level of resignation that it engenders. I have challenged my retired bureaucratic friends to consider mobilizing their friends to take some responsibility for the system they served for 30 years and, since they now have nothing to lose, begin a campaign to communicate with the powers that be to change ‘the way it is’ and offer their support and vision for how it might be.

Their response is uniformly, “It wouldn’t make any difference, and I just don’t care.”

This is resignation on a grand scale.

In one very large Public Service System, about one third of the managerial ranks will be retiring in the next 5 years. Not only is that much experience being lost, but most of their replacements will also be promoted prematurely and probably advanced several levels. No doubt, most will be technically competent, but they will lack a lot of the ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ that comes with age and maturity.

For most large organizations, this issue poses strategic challenges never faced before. No matter how this challenge is prepared for and handled, this transition of leadership will be creating the organization’s future for the next 15 to 20 years. In all likelihood, these management jobs will be filled with ‘technocrats’. At least, the people who remain might have the foresight to consider recognizing those who are leaving in a manner that acknowledges what will be missing when they are gone.

Resignation is a nasty mood because it is insidious, disguising itself in offhand comments such as “Nothing’s wrong” and “That’s life”. It is a great survival strategy, maybe the only effective one when you’ve spent years banging your head up against the inertia in the culture with limited or no success. You can only break your pick so many times before you give up. But if enough people become resigned, the possibility of getting past the bullshit and actually creating a culture that has a future that inspires and allows everyone to contribute is sucked out of the air for everyone. The whole culture becomes resigned—and that makes creating a vision and leading real change that much more difficult, if not downright hopeless.

So I want to acknowledge all of you for giving your lives to serving the public through government organizations or large institutions, for the dream that had you choose that path for contributing, for the tenacity to have stuck with it for your career, and, finally, for the humanity that it takes to keep contributing even when you don’t get acknowledged and the job seems ‘thankless’.

Thank you.

© 2006 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.

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One Response to “Resignation at Work”

  1. Rhea said

    Inertia, resignation, indifference. It’s difficult to feel otherwise in settings that demand that people spend countless hours indoors away from fresh air and sunshine and physical activity, doing work that results in …little positive outcome.

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