In 2004 I took a job at the Social Security Administration’s headquarters in Woodlawn, MD. They had a program for recent college grads where if you had a GPA of 3.4 or over, you could get a job there regardless of your major or work experience, which was perfect for me because I had no work experience except for some rocky stints as a bartender, not to mention that I majored in Romance Languages.1
About a year into my time there I had been transferred from one depressing annex-type building to another at SSA’s main headquarters in Woodlawn, MD, a complex where about 13,000 spend 8 hours a day doing the work of 6,500 people.
Now I can see how some people would consider that statement to be a validation of long-held views on the wastefulness of government while others would consider it an affront and totally off-base.
Putting aside any snark or my own views of government and just being as honest as possible about what I witnessed in my two years at Social Security’s headquarters, it’s pretty reasonable for me to estimate that half of the people there were extraneous and my opinion in this regard is, while anecdotal, based in evidence, to wit: people sleeping under their desks during work hours, people showing up to work drunk, people spending the majority of their cubicle time running real estate and other assorted businesses, not to mention just good old fashioned work-shirking.
In my case, I was more or less worthless from a work-produced standpoint, during at least half of my time there and especially in the first six months when not knowing any better, I would ask my boss regularly if there was you know, something that I should be doing? To which she always replied with some variation on ‘hang tight and try one of the online training courses in the meantime’ while various administrative things were re-manuevered in such a way that there would actually be some work for me to perform.2
At this time (mid-2000s), Social Security was also going through a demographic shift. The workforce there was aging and the program through which I was hired was part of the plan to bring in some fresh blood.
With an aging workforce comes retirement and with retirement comes retirement parties, of which there were many while I worked at the agency. A common feature of retirement parties at the agency was that a work friend of the retiree would plan the retirement party for the retiree, including the marketing of the party, which took the form of emails and what not, but also of posters that would be displayed throughout the office.
These posters usually consisted of photos of the retirees and assorted clip art (clip arts? Clips art?) to illustrate the theme of the retiree’s post-agency life plans. Common themes included spending more time with family and travel.3
Not surprisingly, the most common theme was travel. Which makes sense—after working and saving for thirty years4 and kids out of the house and all that, travel is a great idea.
About a year into my tenure, there was a woman that worked in the same annex–let’s call her Susan. I didn’t work with her directly but I knew who she was. She was retiring and her posters were up all over the annex. The headline for her posters were something like “Susan’s Moving on to See the World!” and already you’re picking up on the travel theme in her post-retirement plans.
But what struck me about it—and this was probably symbolic of the generational divide between baby boomers and whatever the fuck we’re calling my generation these days5—was that the thought of putting in 29 more years before I could be free to travel was utterly demoralizing and depressing.
Now some of that was naïveté about the necessity of just having to earn a living somehow, a naïveté that would later prove disastrous and in hindsight I’ve softened my position and come to understand that some people are perfectly happy to punch a clock, work for the weekend, trade excitement for stability, etc., etc.
On the day of her retirement party,6 Susan came into work in the morning, started feeling ill and went into the women’s bathroom where she collapsed from an acute myocardial infarction and died on the bathroom floor.
Which to me felt like some kind of sadistic joke played on her by the universe, to show up every day for thirty years and punch the clock and just grind through the monotony of the cubicle warren for thirty years and then to collapse and die on the day of your retirement party—it really hit me hard.
And that event, I mean the whole thing, the posters, the waiting til retirement to travel and do what you love and yes I’m imputing a lot onto her history and motives because who knows if she traveled before then or whatever, and it’s far beyond me to say that her life was well-lived, but but for me—for me, it was an awakening and I realized that I couldn’t just putz around in that job forever and that if there were things I wanted to do in life that I should get to doing them instead of waiting around for life to happen.
And what I would love to be able to write is that the very next day I put in my two weeks notice, bought a one-way ticket to Buenos Aires or Rome or wherever to teach English and travel and live the sort of life that I wanted to at that time. What I did instead was go back to my desk to see if any of my favorite blogs had been updated since lunch. Why didn’t I just quit and go travel or teach English or whatever if that’s what I really wanted to do? I was afraid.
It took me a year to get up the courage to quit and pursue something more fulfilling when I entered the disastrous but entertaining-in-hindsight real estate phase of my life, which in hindsight I would have been way better off financially and probably traveled a whole lot more in those next three years had I just stayed at that awful government job.
And I was right about not staying in a go-nowhere mind-numbing job but sadly I was still too afraid to just do what I wanted to do. Despite all the mess that followed, when I look back, I’m really glad that I did something, anything, instead of wallowing in that miserable government job.
In college, I once told a girl that that my major was Romance Languages and she thought I was giving her a cheesy line to get into her pants. ↩
After six months of spending my tremendous amount of free time by reading blogs and CraigsList best of and just generally surfing the internet, it was really really difficult for me to adjust to the new expectation that I would be coming to work and actually working on things, so that those first six months spoiled me as any kind of productive worker for the agency. ↩
I imagine that there was some sort of pre-retirement interview where the retiree would have to describe in broad strokes his or her plans for life after the agency, so that the party planner could arrange for the proper clip art for the poster. ↩
Or even better, a lifetime pension. Employees retiring from SSA at that time were sometimes grandfathered into the old federal pension plan which means monthly payments for life of some % of your overly generous government salary (ironically, the pensioners were exempt from actual Social Security payments, but who cares because the pension was much more lucrative). Again, how you feel about me saying ‘overly generous’ probably depends on your political proclivities. What I will say is that I was definitely overpaid and not just in that initial six month indoor vacation. You can look up the numbers for a GS-7 (at the tech rate) and decide for yourself if they are more than what a recent college grad with zero work experience or skills would earn in the private sector. On top of that, I received an automatic promotion from GS-7 to GS-9 after one year of service and another automatic promotion to GS-11 after my second full year of service, the only requirement for my promotion being that I was still employed there, all of this occurring without any sort of evaluation of my work output or attitude or work ethic, which by the end was virtually non-existent and/or deplorable from a management standpoint. ↩
Gen y? Gen why? Millenials? Generation narcissistic existential identity crisis? ↩
Some people had parties at restaurants and things and full disclosure, my father also worked at the agency and so did my mother, which in hindsight why on earth would you go work where your parents work? And my dad had his retirement party in a restaurant and a lot of people were there to send him off and all in all it was a lovely affair and as far as I know both my parents really loved working at the agency and were part of the productive 50% and would probably disagree with my assessment of the 50% thing in the first place and a whole lot of other things I’ve written here but it’s not their website and yeah I hear ya, why the hell would you work where your parents worked and yes it was extra depressing and defeating when a year after the ecstatic optimism of college had worn off that I found myself not only still living with my parents but also working at the same place. ↩