Monday, August 15, 2011

25 years at work (long post)

I learned to write around the same time that I learned how to read -- early, when I was about 4 years old. My dad would bring home paper, pens & scotch tape for us from the office, and we always had plenty of crayons & colouring books in the house. I wrote stories, letters (to Santa and my grandma), drew pictures & made cards. Some of these pieces still survive, preserved in my mother's basement all these years (and some of them are pretty frickin' hilarious to read as an adult). When I was 7, I started my first journal in a little green coil-bound notebook, and have continued to write about my life, on & off, on paper and online (in e-mails, on message boards and in this blog), ever since then.

I loved my books, and I can remember wanting to "be an author" when I grew up from at least the time I was in grade school. But, as I got older, I began to realize that not many people actually made money, a living, writing books. And, this being the '70s, I accepted the idea that women could (& maybe even should) have a career, make a living, contribute to the family economically, support themselves, if they had to. I don't remember when the concept of "journalism" entered my life, but we always had newspapers around the house, and I read them from the time I was in grade school. Gradually, I realized that I could make a living writing for a newspaper.

Not just any paper, of course. The newspaper of choice for my family was the Winnipeg Tribune, and to be a reporter for the Tribune seemed like the pinnacle of achievement for me at that time, careerwise. (I also envisioned being married -- to a doctor or lawyer, of course -- having a family, and living in a lovely house, in Tuxedo or Charleswood -- the most affluent suburbs of the city, of course.)

I wasn't quite sure how I would obtain all these goals (nevermind do all these things at once). Thinking about it now, it strikes me about how unfocused & unsure I was about how to turn my dreams into reality -- especially when I think about my own teenage years compared to today's teenagers --- focused, driven by ambition (and their ambitious parents), with so much information at their fingertips with the Internet...! I did the usual things that seemed conducive to a career in journalism career -- I wrote for the high school newsletter (such as it was), and worked on the yearbook. I also had the brilliant idea of writing to the editor of the Tribune, who just happened to be a woman -- one of the very few in the field at that time. She wrote me a very kind letter back (which I know is still tucked away in the depths of my closet at my parents' house), answering my questions, nurturing my ambitions and offering advice. I was thrilled.

I also had a guidance counsellor who, bless him, took my ambitions seriously, and showed me the catalog (paper at that time, of course) for Carleton University in Ottawa, which boasted the country's most famous journalism program. At that time & place, however, Ottawa might as well have been Timbuktu. Like most of my classmates, I just couldn't fathom going somewhere so far away from home -- even if I could afford to. Getting together enough money to go to a local university seemed daunting enough.

And so, in the fall of 1979, I enrolled in the arts program at the University of Manitoba. The following year, my father was transferred to another town. There was very little available in the way of housing, and eventually he and my mother decided to build a house. The furniture went into storage, my father lived in the town's lone motel, my mother (not even 40 years old yet) spent several months bouncing around from the motel to my grandparents' house to visiting friends, until the house was (barely) finished just before Christmas -- and my sister & I went into separate residences at the university.

As my mother, sister & I supervised the movers who were packing up our house in the dwindling days of August 1980, the axe fell on the Winnipeg Tribune and several others across Canada on the same day. The closing was a shock to me, a wake-up call to the brutalities of real life and the business world. I felt like my world was falling apart: no home, no future.

Anyway. I finished my undergrad degree & applied for post-graduate programs -- a one year program at Carleton, a one-year program at Ryerson in Toronto and a one-year master of arts program at the University of Western Ontario (which was my first choice, since I would get a master's degree out of the deal). I was initially turned down, but asked if I wanted to stay on the waiting list. I said yes, and a few weeks later, I got the call: I was in.

*** *** ***

"Corporate communications" was only just beginning to be recognized as a legitimate career choice. These days you can actually get a certificate in it at some community colleges. Most of my J-school classmates & I still thought in terms of getting jobs at newspapers and magazines, radio and television stations. We were the first class to abandon typewriters for computers (black screens with glowing green type and a continuous form dot-matrix printer shared by 35 people), and some of my classmates participated in an experimental computer news service for farmers. When I graduated, I managed to wangle a job on the weekly newspaper in the town where my parents now lived -- a way to gain experience, earn some money (at barely above minimum wage) & bide my time until dh & I got married the following year.

I had very few contacts in Toronto when I moved here after our wedding, and we scraped by on my unemployment insurance cheques for awhile (which would never happen these days; the eligibility rules have gotten much tighter). When those ran out, I signed up with a temp agency doing clerical work.

Then I saw a newspaper ad for for a writer/editor position at one of the two banks my father had worked for when I was growing up. I hesitated: my sister and I DESPISED the bank when we were growing up. The bank was the reason why we had to move and leave our friends behind every three to five years, interrupting the family vacation plans we had already made. We both swore that we would never, ever marry bankers.

But it was a job in my field, and a pretty good one. I applied, I went for some interviews. I got the job. (Ironically, my sister wound up working for many years at the other bank my dad had worked for. I have often quipped that, to paraphrase Gloria Steinem, we became the men we didn't want to marry.)

I started work on August 11, 1986.

Last week was my 25th anniversary, not only with the bank, but with the department.

*** *** ***

Others in my department have been with the bank longer, coming from other areas -- but nobody has been with the department longer than me. I've outlasted everyone I started working with, by more at least five years if not more.

I know sometimes people find this incredible (myself included, sometimes). Everyone has heard the prevailing wisdom that loyalty & longevity with one employer is dead; that we will have multiple employers during our working life. Even within my company, anyone who has ambitions to climb the corporate ladder these days is encouraged to cross business lines in search of broad experience rather than specializing. The current head of our department, who came up through the business lines rather than journalism or communications, is very much a proponent of that thinking. As a result, turnover in our department has increased exponentially over the past few years.

But I'm still there. And I'm fine with that.

Today, there are many more opportunities for communicators, generally, and at my company (it seems like every department has at least one). But the truth is, I've never really wanted to work for another company, or even another department. I am a creature of habit, of course. I don't like to rock the boat unnecessarily.

Moreover, I have never really wanted to climb the corporate ladder. It didn't take me long to look at the headaches my bosses had to deal with and decide I didn't want or need that; I have enough stress in my own job as it is. Managing budgets and people has never interested me as much as the words, as the writing itself, as telling a story (even if it is only about a new account or executive appointment). And, as one of my bosses once observed, noting the growing numbers of management-level employees in our department at that time, "Too many chiefs, not enough Indians." -- i.e., you can plan & strategize and create business cases and project plans & dashboards and budgets till the cows come home -- but eventually, someone has to do the actual work.

Sometimes it's hard being the person who stays while everyone else moves on, eventually. You start to feel like part of the furniture, and sometimes, taken a little for granted. It's hard when new people come in and make changes and don't really seem interested in what was done in the past and WHY, even if the lessons learned 10 years ago might still be valid.

But longevity also gives you perspective, I think. I've had the really good fortune of working for, and with, some really great people, for the most part. There have been a few jerks along the way, of course (they're unavoidable, wherever you work), including some who made me question whether I should start polishing up my resume. But time and time again, the jerks eventually either moved on (or were asked to move on). The pendulum might swing too far one way or another for awhile, but I've been around long enough to know that, eventually, it will start moving back toward the centre again.

And there are material benefits to longevity. I've built up a pretty nice pension, or will have by the time I'm ready to retire -- assuming I don't get pinkslipped first. :p I know no job is certain these days, nor pension plans, it seems (although mine is one of the country's better funded ones).

I suppose some people might think that, being childless, I would be more career focused than I am. Isn't that the stereotype? But infertility and stillbirth have given me a different perspective on work and its place in my life.

Work is important, of course. Without children, my expenses might be lower in some respects than those of parents, but I still need to keep a roof over my head & food on the table, the same as anyone else. Moreover, I won't have any children to take care of me in my old age -- I have to have money saved to hire the help I will need. And, for the most part, I like what I do, and I like the people I work with (which is hugely important). I always wanted to be a writer when I grew up, and while I could never have envisioned writing letters and speeches for executives and copy for the annual report when I was 12, the fact is, I AM writing for a living. And I think I'm reasonably good at it, if I do say so myself. There are far worse ways to be making a living, and although I sometimes grumble, I work for a pretty good company when all is said & done.

But I work to live -- I don't live to work. There's nothing like losing a child to make you re-examine your priorities in life, and while I wasn't wildly ambitious pre-Katie, losing her certainly didn't make me any nore so. Dh, home, family -- those things come first. I may not have kids, but I do have a life, and I don't want to spend any more of it at the office than I absolutely have to.

I often wondered how I would manage to juggle work and family. I didn't think I could afford to be a stay-at-home mom, & part of me didn't think I would be able to hack it. I've always thought part-time was the way to go, so long as you could afford it, and my office best friend/coworker & I tentatively explored the idea of sharing a job as she wound her way down to retirement. But I never did get pregnant again, and her stock portfolio took a hit after the dot-com boom went bust. So we both kept working full-time -- she retired five years ago, and I'm still there, for another few years (minimum 5, maximum 15), if all goes well.

*** *** ***

Earlier last week, my senior manager e-mailed me. We had missed our regular "touchbase" and she suggested we do it over lunch last Thursday. Ummm, yeah, right, OK. ; ) I e-mailed dh, "Do you think it's JUST a coincidence...??!" So I wasn't entirely surprised to walk into the restaurant to find our entire immediate team there -- along with my retired coworker. It was the perfect way to celebrate.

A few weeks ago, I received my official anniversary gift from the company, which I had chosen a few weeks before that -- a lovely watch. In September, dh & I will be attending a banquet for all the long-service employees from our head office who are celebrating significant anniversaries this year.

And I've been forewarned to be ready to say a few words at our all-department meeting later this week. Other coworkers have already been dropping by cubicle since the luncheon to congratulate me. The younger ones have been helpfully adding stuff like, "Gee, *I* just turned 25!" Ummm, I don't need to hear that, lol. But it's the thought that counts, right...?? (Someday, they will understand...!)


  1. I enjoyed reading about your career path, thoughts & feelings about work and life. It is something that always presents a challenge for me - I have a hard time switching gears sometimes.

    Congratulations on your 25 year mark! That is an achievement to be celebrated :)


  2. I always like hearing about how people ended up where they are. It's just inherently fascinating.

    Thanks for this! And a big congratulations.

  3. Congratulations on your 25 year anniversary! That's great! And I give you high marks for recognizing what you want to do and don't want to do and not just chasing the almighty dollar. Or should I say the almighty Canadian dollar! :) For me, it took what I call my year from hell - a career detour into the brokerage business - to learn what I really valued and that there were non-monetary rewards from work that were just as important as the almight American dollar.

  4. Congratulations! That's great that you've been (mostly) happy with the same company for so long. Pretty rare these days...

    I like your comment about working to live vs. living to work.

  5. Congratulations on 25 years - that is quite an achievement, esp. in today's world with so much job hopping and so many layoffs. I'm glad your company and co-workers celebrated you in such a nice fashion - they obviously recognize what a treasure you are!

  6. Congratulations on 25 years. Not very common these days.