Alone Together

10/13/2023

In our last issue, I announced my retirement. For those of you who neglected to read the fine print, I will continue to write this column for the time being, or at least for as long as I seem to be making sense.

I’d like to thank everyone who wrote to me to extend their congratulations, some of which we published in the August issue. It meant a lot to me, and I hope that “we’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when.”

Most of the people who responded were near retirement age themselves. That could be due to them having known me or read my column for a long time, but I think it also reflects a real concern among people of a certain age regarding the mechanics of retirement. We work all through our adult lives to achieve something, only to arrive at a point where we abruptly walk away from it.

So this is my first report from the other side, but I’m afraid I can’t give you any brilliant insight into your future. Retirement is what you make it, and thus far I haven’t made very much of it. It’s not like I’m suddenly free to pursue my dream of achieving world peace or finding life on other planets.

Being a list maker, I actually sat down a number of years ago and made a list of the things I would do in retirement, like play tennis and golf, work on the lawn, walk the dog, etc. They were all things I was doing already, but thought I would do more. In reality I do them less, because I have less energy now than I did back when I made the list, and probably should have included things like reading books, watching old movies and enjoying cold beverages.

Speaking of making lists, that’s a skill that comes in very handy in retirement, where every day is essentially Saturday, and it’s easy to do nothing if you don’t have a plan. Just like in your business career, the plan needs to be in furtherance of a specific goal, and the first step is to clearly define that goal.

But let me back up a little bit. Before you start setting goals, I would suggest that you have a long conversation with yourself, and possibly others, about your identity. We have a tendency in this country to define people, especially men, according to what they do for a living. It’s the first question we ask when we make a new acquaintance, and in many cases, we even attach one’s occupation to one’s name.

Someday that’s going to change, and at that point you will get to decide what you are. Is it an ex-something or a current something else?

When I was a kid, it was typical for little boys to be fascinated with what their fathers had done “during the war.” Virtually all our fathers had been soldiers or sailors, and whatever they had done seemed to us virtuous or heroic.

During the war they had been defined by the rank attached to their names, but afterwards they had very abruptly been expected to become someone else entirely. I often think about how difficult that must have been, and that some of them may never quite have accomplished it.

Unlike our fathers, most of my generation did not become soldiers, for reasons I won’t get into here. What many of us did become was entrepreneurs, in numbers never seen before. From Bill Gates to Steve Jobs to your local retailers and contractors, we boomers were quick to strike out on our own, hang up a shingle and take our chances.

I think part of the reason for that spirit was a reaction to the regimentation and conformity of our parents, and part of it was a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy based on our own massive numbers. We were a rising tide that lifted all boats, or at least a lot of them.

To be frank, I also think we have to acknowledge that materialism had something to do with it. We were driven to make a lot of money because we wanted to buy a lot of things.

At any rate, I was identified by occupation as an editor or publisher, but I always self-identified as an entrepreneur, and as such I have felt a real kinship with those of you who started up or acquired a business in the school supply industry. We were part of a great flowering of commerce, both within the industry and within the U.S. economy as a whole.

These days, whenever someone asks me what I do, I simply reply that I’m retired, which gives that person the option of asking for more information, or not. It has come as something of a surprise to me that most people have expressed quite a bit of interest in the details of my career, and much greater surprise that the degree of interest has seemed highest among young people. I guess I expected them to be more interested in high technology than old-school capitalism.

At the risk of over-reading their curiosity (maybe they’re just being polite), what I’m gathering is that college-age kids are taking a personal interest in learning how to go about starting up a new business. In other words, they at least want to consider the idea of trying it themselves. That would be an inclination I haven’t seen much of in the last couple of generations.

My perception is backed up by research. According to a study of 1,000 Gen Zers (age 18 to 25) conducted in July by ZenBusiness, they are the most entrepreneurial generation to date. Eighty-four percent chose entrepreneurship as the most exciting of 12 career options, and 75 percent want ultimately to own their own business. Those are the highest such numbers since the Great Depression.

So I am happy to tell young people my own start-up story, which I think is fairly typical. We started out as a partnership between two people who had worked together at a large publisher, with my partner handling sales and accounting while I covered editorial and manufacturing.

That happens a lot in publishing, resulting in such familiar names as Simon and Schuster, McGraw Hill and Prentice Hall. It happens a lot in other businesses, too, like, say, teacher stores. One partner might have a retail background, while the other might know a lot about teaching aids and school supplies.

I also tell them that all partnerships will eventually fail. There are numerous reasons for that, but in many cases I think that they simply become victims of their own success. As a business grows, it hires more and more people to fill specific roles, making the partners less dependent on each other.

That’s no reason to go it alone, but only to keep one’s eyes open. My own partnership had its ups and downs, but I have no regrets on that score.

Just one other thing. I hear a lot of talk these days about who “built America,” and while I have no desire to get into a political discussion, that’s not a topic I can ignore.

America wasn’t built by a person or a group of people. It was built by free enterprise, and the extent to which we have managed to extend that system to everyone.


You can e-mail Kevin at kfahy@fwpi.com.

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