Hanging Around

As long I am wallowing in doubt and indecision, I have a few more thoughts about work, making a contribution and retirement. 

I could retire today… in theory.  FS is like the military in that respect.  We can get our full pensions after 20 years if we are at least fifty years old.  I have achieved both.  We have an up-or –out system.   Had I not been promoted in 2007, and presuming no promotions in 2008 or 2009, they would be kicking me out come this October.  As it is now, I can stay until February 2016.  My last promotion bought me six years and they gave me an extra year as compensation for my year in Iraq.

We are only allowed to stay in each pay-grade-class a certain number of years and we only get 27 years to jump into the Senior Foreign Service.  The grim reaper is always taking the hindmost.    The system, IMO, has a major flaw in that it puts faster risers at greater risk, since they come sooner up against their time in class.   We also have an interesting concept of “opening your window.”  You cannot be promoted into senior FS unless you open your window.  When you do that, it starts a clock ticking.  You get six evaluations and if you don’t make it to SFS by the time the clock runs out, your window shuts and you are involuntarily retired.    Your life can be extended if you go to a place like Iraq or have a year of training (as I did at Fletcher School, which is why I would have gotten the boot in 2009 instead of 2008).  A cautious person would wait until he had been in the FS for 21 years.  That would mean that he would lose nothing if he did not get promoted, since he would get kicked out of the FS in general in 27 years.   Of course, anybody who does that is probably not very ambitious. 

I opened my window as soon as I was eligible.   I didn’t want to hang around like a fart in a phone booth.   I could have survived as an FS01 until 2012, so that would have been only a four year difference (w/o the long term training year).  On the other hand, they could promote me and I would have more options.  I honestly didn’t think I would make it.  The odds are against you.  I knew that I should not hang around too long, but I also knew I would not have the courage to just set out w/o the boot.  So it was a kind of play or trade option. Get up or get out.

There is a kind of FS life-cycle and I fell into it for awhile.  When we are around forty-five, we complain about the lack of recognition and start bragging that we will be out the door the minute we become eligible for retirement, presumably earning the big bucks in the private sector. When we turn forty-nine, we go silent.  We stop talking about retirement in general and start to count the years until our time in the FS runs out.  A couple years later, we start complaining again, but this time it is decry the injustice that a “good worker like me” may be forced out while “I still have so much to contribute.” 

My question is about how much I still have to contribute.   As I wrote a few days ago, I am concerned that some of the new media is passing me by.  A lot of my skills have become obsolete.    Of course, I can learn new ones, but is it really a good deal to taxpayers for somebody like me to retrain to learn something that a lower-paid newer employee can just do out of habits learned as a child growing up with computers?  

It is always a dilemma to weigh experience and judgment against raw talent and brain-power.    Experience improves judgment, but only within a range of similar situations.  In times of rapid or discontinuous change, experience with former systems may be as much as an impediment as an advantage.   Old generals know how to fight the old wars.  They always are in danger of being overtaken by a revolution in military affairs.  The tank means changed tactics. The same goes for all walks of life, if somewhat less dramatically. That is why you have to clear out experience sometimes and let younger people in.  The experience of the past hangs on their necks less heavily or not at all.   Our up-or-out system is supposed to guard against this sort of complacency, but eventually you get to the end of the trail and maybe you get to the end of your own trail before they vote you off the island.

This is not a problem limited to the FS. In fact, we are relatively better off than many others precisely because of our up-or-out system.  The economic downturn has changed the equations.   All over the country people are delaying retirement. This is good in that it saves money on pensions and keeps people productive.   But it also clogs the arteries of an organization.   You need people leaving at the top in order to give people on other rungs of the ladder the opportunity to climb.

IMO, older people should keep working as long as they want to and as long as they can.  In fact, given the upcoming Social Security and entitlement crisis many will have to do just that, like it or not,  but maybe not in the same jobs or even the same professions.  You get stale after a while, as the pathways your good ideas and sound practices have blazed become ruts and craters that limit options for yourself and others. 

My baby boom generation is the biggest, healthiest and best educated cohort of soon-to-be senior citizens in the history of the world.  We see old people running marathons, discovering new things and opening new businesses.   We still have a lot to contribute and a duty not to sponge off the smaller generations that follow us.  I think we will see an amazing flowering of entrepreneurship among older people.    The Internet will greatly facilitate this trend.  

But maybe we need to be bumped out of our ruts. Our experience is valuable to the extent that it does something valuable.   It is a tool and like any tool, it must be used. It does not entitle us to anything, any more than the ownership of a hammer entitles you to pound.

I don’t know where I am going with this.   It is the time again for me to look for a new assignment and so the thoughts like this are clogging my brain. I have options where I can use my experience in new ways.  But I am not sure what to do.   Should I go down a path where I can use the skills I have developed, where I am reasonably sure of success, or try to cut a new one?