You probably know about the ‘big five’ animals in Africa – lion, elephant, cape buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros. A ‘big five’ closer to home is the five functions of work, the five main areas of benefit that we get from working. These are important while you are still working, and when you slow down, change or stop working altogether, they provide a useful checklist so that you can make sure you adequately replace them in your life.
Much has been written about the functions of work, the economic, psychological and other benefits we derive from employment. Richard P. Johnson (former president of the American Association for Adult Development and Aging, and founder of the Retirement Options consultancy for mature life planning) says that these are the five benefits (perhaps even needs) that collectively bring us satisfaction through our work:
•Utility / Usefulness
Money is undeniably a key driver during our working life. An income helps us to remain independent, create a lifestyle and save for the future. It is also paid in regular increments, making the management of money easier. The need for money drives many people in the their 50s and 60s to keep working, though it is may not be the main reason people delay retirement.
Time management / structure
Being an employee provides a clear structure to our time – part of having a job includes being handed a schedule that takes from Monday morning through Friday evening, and sometimes into the weekends. I have had a number of clients who are seriously terrified by the thought of the empty, unstructured time that will loom if they stop working.
This is not about moulding us into a 1984 / Big Brother stereotype, but rather the many social functions of work – having mates to trade weekend stories with, colleagues with whom to work and share ideas, and sometimes even the development of lifelong friendships. It’s a very important reason to keep working, and can be a huge challenge once working life ends, or if you trade being an employee for starting up your own solo business.
Work provides us with a role, a place in the world. It can be critical in developing a sense of identity – when we meet a new person, the ‘what do you do?’ question is often our first foray into getting to know them.
The loss of this certainty can be very stressful. Much has been written about people who retire and find themselves suffering from ‘relevance deprivation syndrome’. The expression was coined by former foreign affairs minister Gareth Evans, but affects people in all walks of life who give up a busy and useful working identity only to feel suddenly irrelevant in their new life.
Utility / Usefulness
The final benefit of work is in giving a sense of usefulness, a purpose to our days. Of course, work is not the only way to derive meaning – my years as a mother have been at least as significant to me as my work is – but work is often the easiest way to feel useful. Work becomes our ‘cause’, our vehicle to help others and to feel we are contributing to something larger than our immediate world.
If you plan to change how you work, for example going part-time, or giving back, or you are thinking about stopping work altogether, make sure to think about which of these five work benefits may be challenged, and how you can replace them as you move into your next stage.