You Can Take It With You – Reflections On Retiring From Public Service
Retirement from a career of public service carries with it a few implications. The first one is a certain longevity of performance that at a minimum, qualifies one for a lifetime stipend, relative to the usual parameters of high salary, years of service and any other appropriate math equations. This longevity is usually at least the passage of 20 years. I draw a distinction between a time-based retirement, as opposed to an event-based “retirement” due to something beyond the control of the retiree, such as injury. Since event-driven retirements can happen at any time, without regard to length of service, or even quality of performance, it’s a different construct from my perspective.
This brings me to a second implication about a service-based retirement, which is that the service was satisfactory. Despite the public’s perception that government employees are some sort of untouchable mass that are allowed to sup from the trough of inexhaustible money, it just ain’t like that. Public service can be frustrating enough to anyone, so that sticking it out for 20 years is worthy enough of celebration when the time comes. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, when examining the number of jobs held between ages 18 and 46 by persons born between 1957 and 1964, the average is 11. That means boomers aged 50 to 57 changed jobs an average of every two years. Only 10% worked in less than four jobs under the above time parameters.
So, in 2014 when celebrating a career of 20+ years of service to the public, it is pretty clear that the celebratee is in rarefied air. What is it that motivated a person to give that much of their life to one job when their contemporaries clearly pursued a different path? The cynic would again point to all the stereotypes of a government employee as evidence that a person would have to be crazy, or certainly brain-injured at some point to walk away from such a gravy train in mid-career.
At this point with near 30 years of service spread amongst three public-service entities, I can testify to the fact that many of the people I started with fell out along the way. In fact, I have seen people come and go throughout this time period who apparently didn’t quite see this pot of gold that popular opinion suggested all public employees split up on a daily basis. What they may have seen were unhappy public interactions, ungrateful constituents, and the possibility of being continually unappreciated by the very people they served. Having considered all that, they bailed.
And so, as we celebrate the lifetime literally given by someone who has reached the end of service, what lessons are there to take away? Besides sharing our general happiness and admiration for giving of themselves for such a long period to such a worthy cause, is there something we can use here to perhaps inform our own expectations? In short, yes.
Lesson #1 is the management of your expectations. This job is not about you and never will be. Public service is literally that, both in the literal and abstract. What you do serves the public. It does not serve a company bottom line, increase your stock option price, or serve to increase your own profitability. One of the most iconic speeches of the 20th Century is President Kennedy’s Inaugural Address in 1961. During that speech, as any Boomer would recall, it’s not what your country can do for you. Navigating your career in public service through mile markers consisting of being praised, or unappreciated, is likely to produce the Scoreboard Effect. In that world, your attitude will be constantly a reflection of what is on the board and woe to the person who comes to you for help when the home team is down. If there is any advice I could give to a person considering a career in public service, it is to dispense with the scoreboard. That will never work in your favor, and you will end up giving good people bad service. And, as has been previously noted, it isn’t about you.
Lesson #2 is what the end should look like. Life often consists of gaps between what is expected and what is delivered. In essence, if you expect it, you have already set yourself up for disappointment. If you believe you are due a grand celebration because of your life of sacrifice, and behave accordingly, your scoreboard will not likely be kind. Retirement celebrations are not a moment to set the needle to zero, where you are finally repaid all that is owed you. I have officiated and attended a number of these over the years and there is a palpable difference between the retirement of the entitled, and the beloved. The latter is filled with moments in which there is genuine surprise over the width and depth that someone has touched lives in their career, because they weren’t keeping score while they were doing it. You just can’t stage-manage your own level of appreciation, which means the only emotionally honest way to approach a celebration of the end is to give yourself over to your co-workers and accept what they are willing to give you. That is the ultimate performance review.
In the end, public service is about being the face of a large monolithic construct in such a way that people saw the person behind the construct, and walked away feeling like they were a person and not a number or a file or a problem. Willingly investing in the struggle of bringing the humanity to service, each and every day for 20 years is, and always will be, worthy of celebration. Here’s to them, and all they gave, and here’s to you, for all you have left to give.