Surviving limbo without putting others' backs up

5th November 2010 at 00:00

It was in a line management meeting (of all places) that I experienced my "Road to Damascus" moment. There I was, suspiciously eyeing the usual pile of paperwork on the desk in front of us, when it suddenly occurred to me that it simply didn't apply to me any more. In a minute, my line manager was going to ask me to start ticking boxes regarding my goals and ambitions. And all I could answer to any of his questions would be: none of the above!

The problem was - the problem is - that all such aspirations conventionally come under the category of "career". And I am now at that stage of my professional life where "career" is simply a non-starter.

If a career can be seen as a story - with a beginning, a middle and an end - the phase in which I now find myself is better suited to the word "epilogue". Having taken retirement - early retirement, I hasten to add - a couple of years back, I returned almost immediately as a half-time lecturer. While I'd had enough of management, I still felt I had a role to play in the classroom.

But that puts me - and an increasing number of others like me - in something of a limbo-land. In one sense our careers are over. We have watched the rocket rise into the sky, glow briefly, then fall back to earth again. Yet here we are still, clinging to the burnt-out stick, and expecting it to mean something.

One problem is that, unlike all the other stages of our professional life, there is no model for this phase; no ready-made moulds for us to pour ourselves into. All that's left is for us to try to make it up as we go along.

But what exactly are we to do? To start with, we must surely avoid becoming the curmudgeon of the staff room, the one who sits in the corner like Father Jack, coming to life only when there is a sniff of gin in the air. In particular we must beware the temptation to - whenever anything new is proposed - immediately counter with a: "We tried that in 1981 and it didn't work."

We must also remind ourselves a hundred times a day that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit. So that when someone rushes in with the latest news about the awarding body bumping up our assignment coversheets from two pages to four, we come up with a better response than: "Oh joy, oh rapture."

And maybe I was being too categorical when I suggested that goals and aspirations were no longer for us. Because what we must really fight against is getting stale. Not to see ourselves as "winding down". To be prepared to take on fresh challenges and see where they might take us. After all, we have chosen to be here - presumably because we think it is a better option than sitting and waiting for the twilight in Frinton-on- Sea.

We also have to be mindful as to how our younger colleagues might see us. We might think of ourselves as being decidedly in our prime, but to them we could simply be the bed-blockers of the profession, clinging on with our crotchety fingers to jobs that new entrants might otherwise be given.

If not that, then what about the judgments we are making - or are assumed to be making - about their performance? Many of us may have had roles higher up the pecking order than we have now. Having run things ourselves, it may not be unreasonable for them to assume that we have opinions on how those same things are being run now.

But shouldn't they too also be trying to accentuate the positive? Are we not a human resource - and one that should be deployed, not deplored?

So perhaps I shouldn't have felt so defensive going into that meeting with my manager after all. Yes, he might have viewed me as not so much a baby- boomer as a baby boomeranger; but then maybe the boomerang is still worth having when it returns to the hand that threw it.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a college in London.

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