Has work really become that miserable and unpleasant for so many people?

The question came to mind as I read reader responses to a recent column. In it, I asked if we were still quitting at the wrong time—too early. I argued that our increasing longevity suggested we should work longer.

Readers disagreed. In fact, they pushed back hard.

How hard? Let’s just say the messages made me think of the first line in Johnny Paycheck’s most popular song. You know, “Take this job and shove it, I ain’t working here no more.” For all the hours we spend working, a lot of people don’t like it much. They like it less than they did 20 years ago. And they don’t see it getting any better. Work makes them frustrated and angry. No solution is in sight. So the sooner they can call it a day, the better.


—“I found your article rather shortsighted and unrealistic. Obviously you have a great job that you can keep doing.  I knew a man in the HVAC profession who was so worn out by his job that he retired at age 60 and collected nothing for 2 years, so happy his body wasn't being subjected to daily wear and tear that he happily lived on savings till he turned age 62…
“So the decision makes perfect sense: unless you have a job you like, and an easy physical job, and one you can continue to do till you are age 66.  If any one of those is a no, then it is no surprise that people want to stop beating themselves up.” —R.K.
—“My personal experience is that in the 1980's I was working 40 to 45 hours per week. By 2012, I worked over 3000 hours in a year. In a high pressure, underfunded, understaffed world that is wholly unsustainable. That year I took 2 whole hours of vacation.” —MS
—“I would like to add another slant for those of us who chose the ‘wrong’ time to claim Social Security. And that is preservation of what is left of mental, physical, and emotional health. When I retired at 62, 2.5 people replaced me: enough said."
“—Facing me just after that retirement date was a daughter's difficult bed-ridden pregnancy, another daughter's emotional crisis, and other family issues.  It was a choice between continuing to be unavailable to my family or remaining in a position in which no matter how few hours I slept, I still couldn't get it all done. Three years later, I am almost recovered from the stress, its toll having exponentially aged me.  I have never regretted the decision.” —B.L.

Other letters amplified the theme of sour workplaces, miserable working conditions, uncertain employment and family issues that dictated early retirement. They brought to life a study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) that found nearly half of all workers— 47 percent in 2013— leave their jobs earlier than planned due to health problems or disabilities, downsizings or closures of their companies, or having to care for spouses or other family members.

Is a solution in sight?

Not yet. So far, advancing life expectancies have given us, as individuals and families, a major financial problem. At the same time, greater life expectancies have given our government a mounting fiscal problem. The promises for retirement income and medical care can’t be paid for by the amount of taxes being collected.

Worse, the greatest tools for economic progress yet created— our corporations— are so narrowly focused on benefitting their executives and shareholders that they routinely claim impotence for dealing with the issues workers face.

We’ve got a lot of work to do.

As you read this I will be celebrating my 74th birthday, happy that I still work, enjoying work all the more because it isn’t a financial necessity. I’m also delighted to be alive: my father died at 43, my mother at 57. Longevity isn’t inevitable.

But most of all I am thankful that in spite of our many disappointments in life, most of us adapt and adapt and adapt. It’s a great quality, very generously distributed. We can never celebrate it enough.