“A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare”
– W H Davies: ‘Leisure’
Last week’s ‘Friday Faves’ on WordPress set me thinking, as it highlighted three blog posts on the broad theme of the guilt that is all too often associated with not being ‘busy’ (or at least not being seen to be busy), whether as child or adult, employed or unemployed.
I retired – voluntarily – last September after working for thirty years in the investment business, an industry where workaholism is the stuff of legend. So, these faves were relevant to me in two ways: not only because now I don’t have ‘work’ to do, but also because now I don’t have to work.
Am I bothered? Hell, no.
Let’s deal with work first. There is certainly a deeply ingrained culture of long hours in investment banking (as in many other occupations), although this wasn’t always entirely the case. On my first day as an investment analyst, in 1981, I was told that the prevailing ethos was “work hard, play hard”. Fair enough, but I was also told that the definition of a ‘split second’ was the time that elapsed between a broker returning to his desk after lunch and the market closing.
This idea of ‘get the job done and have some fun’ gave me a good grounding before it all started to go downhill after 1987, when the Americans started to take over, marking – as my former colleague, Philip Augar, put it in the title of his book on the era – “The Death Of Gentlemanly Capitalism”. Not that I can complain, having become one of the first to go working for the yankee dollar, at the Thundering Herd, although I did draw the line at the ‘all-the-hours-God-sends’ work ethic of the Giant Vampire Squid, who came a-calling once upon a time.
Back in the mid-nineties, in what should have been a wake-up call to the industry as a whole and its fixation with equating productivity with mere presence, one of my peers at another investment bank collapsed and died in his office. He was in his late thirties. That was scary enough in itself. Even scarier was the fact that this happened at ten o’clock at night. Perhaps scariest of all was that there were about twenty of his colleagues also in the office – at ten o’clock.
I did occasionally put in some long hours myself – but this was very much the exception rather than the rule, even if the ‘normal’ hours did get progressively longer. 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. was my typical working day by 2001, when I was given the opportunity by my then employers (a now – spectacularly – failed European bank) to ‘pursue other career opportunities’. The 7:00 was non-negotiable and the 6:00 had me marked down as a slacker. That may well have been a factor in getting me made redundant, but I escaped with my sanity and my marriage intact, which strikes me as a pretty good deal.
Now, as I understand it, the standard sell-side starting time is 6 a.m. and the 6 p.m. has undoubtedly been pushed out as well. In the last few years, I lost count of the number of e-mailed research reports I received that could only have been written over a weekend, or the invitations to dial into Sunday evening conference calls. That’s not life, that’s madness.
The truth is, there is absolutely no need to live at your desk in order to do your job ‘properly’, unless you’re out of your depth, in which case you won’t be able to do it properly however much time you devote to it. Of course, there is always something that can be done, but that’s not the same as saying that it needs to be done, at least not right now.
And so we come to retirement.
Latterly, I came to know, through work, a senior executive of one of the big French banks, who was due to retire at about the same time as me. We compared notes on the subject. He freely admitted that the prospect absolutely terrified him. As he put it, work had been his whole life (he was divorced, incidentally) and, largely because of this, he had no hobbies or other outside interests. He found it hard to understand that I could actually be looking forward to not having a job.
In the months before we left Abu Dhabi, friends would solicitously ask us ‘won’t you be bored?’ or ‘what will you do?’ Broadly speaking, our answers were, respectively, ‘no’ and ‘whatever we choose’. We never thought we would be stuck for something to do, and so it has proved (see also my post “Seal that silver mine” from last December).
So, how do I fill my time now, without an office to go to? Well, on a gloriously sunny day last week, I finished a blog post (which sank without trace, but hey ho) in the morning and then spent the afternoon sitting in my garden, listening to the Grateful Dead and eating an ice-cream.
Would you call that a waste of time? I know I don’t.