This is part of a series of posts on simplification in late adulthood. For some context on the concept of simplification, consult a previous post in the series. In this post I’ll focus on simplification of status, especially on the way theologian Lewis Joseph Sherrill conceptualized this type of paring back.
What does it mean for me to simplify my status? One of the things it means is to simplify my work life. My status derives in part from being recognized for the work I do. That’s true whether I was working in a high- or low-status occupation. The doctor skilled with a scalpel or the lawyer skilled at disputation are highly regarded, but so are the carpenter skilled with a hammer or the plumber skilled with a wrench. Whatever one’s line of work, status comes from knowledge and competence.
Giving up the recognition and self-satisfaction that comes from our work can be difficult. Here is what Dr. Gerald Stein says in his blog about losing status at retirement:
“Many of us define ourselves, at least in part, by our work. For those who take particular pride in what they do and the status that it confers, it is especially difficult to surrender their profession. Loss of identity is a risk. In such cases a satisfying post-work life requires that one be flexible enough to re-define oneself and no longer feel the necessity of being ‘the big guy’ who is indispensable to the organization.”
As Dr. Stein notes, it can be difficult to lose recognition as a go-to person. Some retirees keep in close touch with former colleagues, taking some satisfaction when the organization stumbles in their absence and offering advice about how workplace problems should be handled. True simplification means letting go of such residual sources of status. Only by accepting loss of importance in the workplace can one gain what is more important–to be defined by one’s essential personhood, not by one’s social role.
Dr. Stein also alludes to loss of identity and the need to redefine oneself. A few years ago retiree Bob Lowry wrote a nice post at Next Avenue in which he notes that, after leaving employment, retirees are confronted with the question, “Who am I now?” When he was first faced with this question, Bob resorted to reminding others of his former prominence:
“Well after I retired from being a management consultant to several hundred radio stations in 2001, I felt the need to remind people that I had an airline’s Million Miler Card and got upgraded to first class all the time. Not surprisingly, most were politely uninterested.”
Bob returned to work for a few years, then eventually found two activities to devote himself to: working with prison inmates and blogging about retirement. These interests didn’t emerge until he first cleared space for them by acknowledging his loss of status and facing the question of who he was. The process he went through is what Sherrill described; paring away what has lost importance so that something that is still important comes to the fore.
Work is of course not the only area where simplification of status occurs. In families, parents who were always the ones who arranged family gatherings and provided support, encouragement, and direction to their offspring may eventually step back so that one or more members of the next generation can take on at least some of these responsibilities. In communities, older adults who served on boards or ran for political office often relinquish these roles. As with work, it can be difficult to step aside, but the time comes when it is best to do so not only for the sake of the organization but also for the sake of personal growth.
I am part way along in my simplification of status. In 2012, I resigned from my full-time position on the faculty of Methodist University in order to provide help to my parents. I was doing what I was sure was the more important thing to do, but personally I felt less important. I was appointed Professor Emeritus, but that is a hollow title, empty of responsibility. I was working part-time as a therapist before leaving full-time work, and I still am doing that. I expect to continue for another year, then start phasing out. Who will I be when I’m no longer working? Someone with less status (and less income) but more time on his hands. I don’t know yet whether, once I give up that which gives me status, I’ll be able to discern and then pursue something more important. I need to make the attempt, though.