On to Retirement

Steve seated at his office desk wearing a Honeywell centennial sweatshirt
On my last day of work, 31 December 2022, wearing a sweatshirt from my first full-time job 44 years earlier

On New Year’s Eve 2022 I walked out of a deserted office and into another phase of my life. I don’t think of it as going “off” to retirement but rather going on to something new.

Some retirees say they got out “just in time.” My wife, who retired from a hospital lab in January 2020, absolutely did. Back then the world was weeks away from recognizing the coronavirus as a clear and present danger with no vaccines or even effective treatments available. Everyone was anxious, but front-line medical workers became rightfully frightened. Me? I was fortunate enough to continue working full-time at a white-collar job from a home office. Nobody in our house caught covid (knock wood) and my employer never pressured anyone to return to our office. I liked my work and I liked my boss in California, and I had an ergonomically sound setup and a ten-second commute. I could have continued indefinitely. In fact, I know people who have.

But while I was learning how to document microservice applications, single-sourcing from DITA to multiple outputs, in the back of my mind I still remembered how to paste up camera-ready copy. The accumulation of new knowledge on top of old was piling up. (This cultural reference is actually before my time, but I didn’t want my brain turning into Fibber McGee’s closet.) I wanted to stop while I could still point to my work with pride. And the economic calculus of retirement is complex: the longer you work, the greater your Social Security payments and the bigger your nest egg, but the less time you leave yourself to enjoy it. I got my first tech-writing job right out of college and I was still working past my full retirement age. I wanted to reclaim my time.

Looking back at my career, I wrote thousands of documents for dozens of products for a succession of employers. True, the audience was never large, and all but my most recent works for hire are already superseded. Also, I admit that technical writing is to writing as military music is to music. Deathless prose it wasn’t. But it was clear, concise, and correct.

STC has a strong educational mission, and over the years I’ve never understood those English departments that spurned our professional outreach offers to work with their students, as if applied writing was somehow ignoble. But as I told more than a few college classes, my career demonstrated that you could earn a good living as a writer. In the final accounting, it took both our incomes and decades of work to accomplish, but my wife and I bought and paid for two houses, put our three children through college, and drove (mostly) new cars. We ended with no debt and enough of a nest egg that we could afford to stop working altogether. Flex? Facts.

I don’t think I got out just in time. I don’t think the profession is in danger, just in its typical state of flux. In that regard, I can attest that technologically, everything has changed in the last forty-plus years, and yet nothing about what we do has changed. Despite the burgeoning capabilities of AI (about which I’ll write more soon), the need to explain technical products and services to users at a human level remains; if anything, it’s greater than ever. Digital technology in particular has passed Arthur C. Clarke’s point of magic; consumers don’t know how any of it works, they just expect it to work. We pay $1000 for a smartphone but only know how to use ten percent of its features (and I may be overly generous here). To explain these complex products clearly; to help people make full use of what they’ve paid for; to describe how they can get things done; all that remains the job of the technical communicator. I leave it to others to carry on that long tradition.

What will I do now? I have a lot of books on my shelves I bought but haven’t read; a lot of movies I added to my wishlist but haven’t watched; and a lot of adjectives and adverbs I have in mind but haven’t written. I’d like to trade cold facts for warm fictions and personal opinions—ooh, and maybe sometimes in complex sentences!

I’l let you know how I’m doing.

Published by Steven Jong

I am a retired technical communicator, a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication (STC), a former STC board member, and chair of the first STC Certification Commission. I occasionally blog about these and other topics.

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