When I retired from my first job as a teacher, the union rep said, “Congratulations. You made it out alive.” His comments were certainly prescient at the time. I embraced this sentiment even more the second time I retired, even though I didn’t choose retirement. It chose me. If both my bank account and fridge are appropriately stocked, and my calendar is clear, why, then, am I still having work nightmares five years down the road? Retirement is not supposed to be a time of pounding heartbeats and night sweats. Oddly enough, some retirees report being pestered by these events even a decade since their exodus. So, what is going on?
Work nightmares are abundant
There is a lot of information on this subject, mainly focusing on those who are still employed, but there is much wisdom to discover. Since work consumed most of our waking hours and it was filled with emotionally turbulent times, we shouldn’t be surprised. A study by SleepZoo finds that 2/3 of working adults have six common “dreams:” sex with a coworker, being late for work, ruining a project, appearing at work naked, getting lost in the office, and fighting with the boss - not the substance of pleasant reveries. These nocturnal ramblings don’t magically disappear when the job ends. Additionally, the substance of the dreams is not what it appears, especially the erotic scenarios. Generally, these dreams reveal underlying worries about colleagues, projects and bosses: embarrassment, fears, and anger!
Retirement offers the opportunity for reflection in mega doses. All professions have their quirky issues, but there is a certain commonality in the work experience. There is both the positive and the negative. I find that, unfortunately, I’m not dreaming about the positive, although in reality, these experiences most certainly outnumbered the negative. Perhaps, as the experts say, there is some unfinished business that needs working out.
Work dreams are not about the good times
When I think of my teaching career, if I’m only revisiting the best moments, my love of children stands out. When I began at the age of 20, I would frequently say, “I can’t believe they pay me to do this.” It was great fun helping 25 first graders put their boots on with plastic bags around their shoes in the 70’s, and cleanly and efficiently packing everything away in June, and starting over in September. Besides teaching, my daily work included a late afternoon planning session, which was both stimulating and always changing. The next day the ideas were implemented and evaluated for their success. There was content across various subject areas, and lessons to be planned for children of different ages and competencies. None of this ever got boring, but somehow these events do not reside in my retirement dreams.
What is lurking in those nightmares?
Unfortunately, my dreams focus on challenging personal relationships with colleagues, government intrusion into education through irrelevant standardized testing, the “big box” transformation of educational materials into a “one size fits none” product, and painful racial tensions between administration, staff and parents at my urban/suburban elementary school.
Since I had the fortune to have a second career as a university administrator, those ivy walled dreams mainly focus on my abrupt exit due to unrealistic support for my too large portfolio and staff members who I served for eight years and never said “goodbye” or “thank you.” My boss and his wife, who was also a teaching colleague, make regular appearances.
Work place injustices
I am totally certain you have your own positive experiences of being in the flow of your profession, but you might also be a generator of these work nightmares. Sara Jaffe is a journalist who has been covering work, the nature of work, and workers’ struggles for over a decade. She illuminates some of the core reasons we can’t let our former lives go in her book Work Won’t Love You Back. Although the title is somewhat light-hearted, this is a well-researched volume on the root causes of the mistreatment of workers in America and elsewhere. There are specific chapters on professions which will resonate with the reader: domestic work, teaching, retail, nonprofits, art, academia, technology, and sports. One of Jaffe’s main premises is that in the helping and artistic professions, the world of work takes advantage of those who buy into the idea that “fulfillment, pleasure, meaning and joy” are most important, not a living wage or sustainable lifestyle.
A second assertion has been highlighted by the pandemic. America has been running on the energy of interchangeable workers who must be available around the clock with little independence or job satisfaction, resulting in ill health, anxiety, stress and general dissatisfaction.
World history is clear in its treatment of workers
The economic root for this global affliction is an economic term, "neo-liberalism." To simplify the concept, neo-liberalism which was embraced most famously by Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher, is the idea that “everything we want and need must be found with a price tag attached.” It is reflected in privatization, deregulation, globalization, austerity and reduced government spending, the antithesis to the “Fordist Compromise,” which the Ford Motor Company developed at the turn of the 20th century. This concept traded fair wages, health care, vacation days and a pension for work in the factory five-eight hour days per week. Such was the landscape of employment for many years until the end of the 1970’s. Surprisingly, neo-liberalism had its roots in Chile when Augusto Pinochet overthrew Salvador Allende and reorganized his country with the help of American economists. Because the post-World War II boom was ending, these ideas gained traction around the world.
The year you were born makes a difference
Your work experience will be greatly affected by your birth date. My birth in 1952 allowed me to ride the coattails of labor unions to a retirement with a defined benefit pension. You may have been caught in the 2009 recession, the 2020 pandemic, or the merger or hostile takeover of your firm. All of these historic moments might arise in your dreams, depending upon the specifics of your situation and how you ended your career.
Sara Jaffe defines the current paradigm of work to include the loss of independence and craftsmanship, time for a personal life, including the raising of children, and the Protestant concept that one’s work situation is all is up to the individual. It is up to the individual to gain the skills necessary for a living wage and to continuously work harder for less, or leave for another job.
Acknowledging employment injustices and their personal toll
The current drivers of the employment world are capitalism, domination, and exploitation. I believe some of your work nightmares are related to this scenario. It is helpful to be aware of the historical events which have so changed the world of work. We’ve lived through a great transition, unfortunately, in the wrong direction. Many of your negative experiences might be due to these historical changes, and you are certainly not alone.
Monica Torres in her Huffington Post piece 9 Signs You’re Ready to Quit Your Job finds common signs of worker dissatisfaction including feeling undervalued, physical stress and 24/7 burnout. Today’s workers often need to numb themselves outside of work and live for the weekends. As a retiree, you have probably experienced the transition from feeling valued as an employee for your particular talents to the current world of interchangeable humans. Factor in Covid-19’s challenges, the foibles of human behavior, paycheck anxiety, and you’ll find you’ve experienced the perfect incubation for what you might have dreamed last night.
Is there a way out? Understanding your place in history and that many of the painful work experiences you had were out of your control is a place to begin. Recurring nightmares with their accompanying physical symptoms might require some professional therapy sessions.
For those of us ready to relinquish the hold of these experiences on our daily functioning, Mitch Causey in his Huffington Post piece, Workplace Trauma is Real, offers some attainable suggestions. The first step is to bring the painful experiences to sharp awareness. Through journaling or discussion, identify what you loved and hated about your former employment. Designate those colleagues who you need to forgive so you can move forward. (Get out of my dreams!!!) The passage of time is a great healer. Soon your role in the world of work will dim, and you can make the rest of your life the best of your life.