Labor Day

Labor Day is just another workday when you work from home…

Here we are, on the first Labor Day weekend since our “non-retirement” nearly a year ago, also the first anniversary of unloading at least some of our “stuff” at our new home and close to the second anniversary of the official start of the Great Recession.  It is becoming increasingly apparent that the era of the traditional “retirement” that folks born before the Great Depression have enjoyed is over.  Those of use between the Greatest Generation and the Boomers are in a kind of limbo where expectations and reality are diverging rapidly.

A number of factors weigh in on this sea change in our perception of the “Golden Years” as we approach the second decade in the new century.  First, many of us in our seventh decade of life are much more active and healthy than were our parent’s generation.  In the mid-twentieth century, retirement age was very close to the average life expectancy of those entering the workforce.  Statistically, only half of those entering the workforce would survive to see retirement, and those who did were not expected to be productive workers by that time, and live in retirement only a few years.  Today, the average life expectancy of someone entering the workforce as a young adult is in the mid-70s.  Those of us already at retirement age can expect to live another 16 years–on average!

This is no surprise, as the life expectancy has been increasing steadily for many decades, while the retirement age, set in the 1930s, remained the same until recently and is only gradually rising.  “Retirement” is no longer an extended vacation or extremely long weekend of household puttering: few today, raised in the age of easy credit and ravaged savings, have the finances to travel and play or indulge in expensive hobbies for decades, and, well, not all of us enjoy home repairs and gardening all that much to devote all our waking hours to it.  So, retirement becomes a new career opportunity, either to seek a new career or transform our old one.

In the case of the Unix Curmudgeon, our life hasn’t changed much so far, except the office is downstairs instead of across town, but we’ve been in that situation before, in the mid-1990s; the hours are a bit more flexible, but the result is that just as much work gets done, for less money and stretched across longer days.   Tasking is still driven by email and the intensity (and volume) of work varies proportionally with the urgency of server log messages.

“Working from Home” is the flip side of   “FAXing from the Beach,” the topic of an earlier post.  While the home worker has increased personal freedom, he or she is essentially immersed in work, 24x7x365. Still, this arrangement has its merits:  work gets done, but on a personal time scale.  The world of business isn’t quite ready for this transition, though.  The modern office culture, developed when communications was by memo rushed from desk to desk, is archaic when documents and messages can be instantly transmitted around the world, but is ingrained in corporate policies and procedures and the mindset that unseen workers are unsupervised workers.  Granted, telecommuting doesn’t scale well to many jobs, though it is surprising how many it does cover well.

System administration and programming are nearly ideal candidates for remote work, except for those rare times when a certain amount of “laying on of hands” is necessary, like installing, removing, or repairing hardware.  Installation and removal can be largely scheduled well in advance.  The computers I tend most of the time are physically 600 miles from my home-based office, sometimes further if I am traveling: I have made in-person appearances several times over the past year, sometimes just to remind the community-at-large that I still do work there, and sometimes to man-handle the hardware.

My last trip to the client’s site involved shutting down and removing an old server, a more or less symbolic act, since I had, over the previous few weeks, migrated the functionality to other machines and even changed the identity of the machine on the network.  The other part of the equation, repair, becomes almost a non-issue with the proliferation of virtualization and high-availability clustering.  As long as there are enough hosts to handle all of the services needed, the virtual server images can be moved from one to the other and computing loads balanced among the remaining servers in a cluster, almost behind the scenes, so that even repairs can be scheduled at a convenient time.

So, this Labor Day, as I monitor the migration of hundreds of thousands of files to consolidate several older, smaller servers’ data into one, and draft a quote for the next year’s contract with my primary client, I realize that retirement is a relic of the past: the private and public pensions available to persons of a certain age only serve to supplement the uncertain income of hourly contract fees and permit a slightly more relaxed work schedule (though when projects dictate, the workday sometimes runs well over eight hours and through the weekend).  Labor Day is a celebration of continuing to be a productive member of the workforce, at an age that previous generations of workers were expected to cash in and step aside.  That was a noble idea when social security was invented, to make room for younger, more able workers in an age when unemployment was more severe than it is today.  But, today, skill and experience counts, too, and age is not a factor for knowledge workers, as long as their minds are agile and accepting of new ideas.  We’re used to that–in the 45 years since we’ve been in this business, the only constant has been the rate of change, governed by Moore’s Law.  Ever increasing speed and capacity opens new avenues for change.  Some of those changes have been waiting years to be practical to implement: for instance, microprogramming, the principle on which most modern computer architectures is based, was invented in the early 1950s, but had to wait until the development of the large-scale integrated circuit chips in the late 1970s to become realizable on a practical basis.  Multi-processors and distributed clusters, once reserved only for vital scientific and military purposes, are now affordable to everyone, but only a few of us have long experience with programming and using them.

The exuberance and curiousity of youth is a great boon to business, but so is the calculated patience of us elders.  The curve of Moore’s Law is flattening–the secret to speed and capacity in the future lays in the techniques of the past, by which we wrung performance out of those early, limited systems, with slow processors and small memories.  Old is useless only if what it does isn’t needed anymore (if it ever was) or superseded by a paradigm shift.  Who knows paradigm shift better than those of us who have lived through the entire history of computing?