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Get a Real Job

In a piece of genuinely alarming news, The Wall Street Journal reports that baby boomers reaching retirement age are increasingly …

In a piece of genuinely alarming news, The Wall Street Journal reports that baby boomers reaching retirement age are increasingly taking jobs as “hobbies.” Some are early retirees who lack the wealth to exit the work force entirely and instead are taking low-stress, hobbylike jobs in enterprises they admire or fields they have long dreamed of working in. Others are people who are not quite ready to put up their feet and relax, “active” retirees who seek employment at jobs that won’t put too much of a strain on their time or intellectual resources. These individuals, says The Journal, are concerned about “losing a sense of purpose,” people for whom “the need for extra cash is secondary to the emotional satisfaction they derive from staying active and socially engaged.”

Understandably, many of us find this trend absolutely horrifying. As is often the case with gee-whiz journalism, the reporter seems unaware that hobbyists have been taking over certain portions of the work force for years. Amtrak became the private preserve of hobbyists way back in the Carter Administration. Ditto PBS. The rudderless National Hockey League has been run as a goofy hobby for as long as anyone can remember, as have the Detroit Lions, the Los Angeles Clippers and the Philadelphia Phillies.

Nowhere has hobbyism taken firmer root than in the United States Senate, a no-heavy-lifting operation which has been the political equivalent of a duck whittler’s convention for years.

Up until now, hobbyism has not seriously damaged the economy, because no one watches public television, Amtrak has been rendered virtually obsolete by low-fare airlines, the Senate has long been the preserve of slothful retirees, and the public does not really care how the owners of professional sports franchises run their businesses. But if baby boomer hobbyism starts to filter all the way down into the mainstream, where the real work gets done, a national disaster resulting in real damage to productivity could ensue.

Here’s why: At the very same moment that Gen X (people between the ages of 24 and 43) have finally gotten sold on the idea that work is a serious matter, and not a pastime, what could be worse than re-staffing the labor force with a raft load of baby boomers who are only working to keep themselves amused. What could more negatively impact company morale than having a bunch of reformed slackers working cheek by jowl with smug baby boomers who keep reminding them, “This isn’t my real job. I retired from my real job.

This is only my hobby.” “More worrisome, hobbyism is not a natural fit with certain businesses. Hobbyists make terrible state troopers. People rejoining the work force on a lark make woefully ineffective derivatives salesmen. And who wants to have his medulla oblongata restructured by a physician who admits that he is only performing brain surgery “to keep myself busy”?

Equally worrisome is a phenomenon known as Baby Boomer Overhang. For 30 years, baby boomers have been telling everyone older than them and everyone younger than them how brilliant and inventive and morally upstanding and just generally wonderful they are. The only thing that has kept the other generations going during this dark period of transcontinental, intergenerational condescension was the reassuring fact that people older than baby boomers would eventually die, while people younger than them would eventually get to see them retire or, preferably, die.

If what The Journal is saying is true, if the American work force-on the very brink of being handed over to the care of hard-working, enthusiastic youngsters-is instead ready to morph into a glorified activities center for early retirees, then woe betide this society. Baby boomers grew up insisting that if you weren’t part of the solution, you were part of the problem. Baby boomers haunting the labor force as “hobbyists” is anything but a solution.

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.