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Buddhistdoor View: Reimagining the Interplay of Work and Retirement as Lifelong Meaning-seeking

Robert Di Niro and Anne Hathaway in The Intern (2015). From

In a past View, we highlighted how the rapid ascent of AI and robotics could mean a significant displacement of work across diverse sectors, even in Buddhist temples and ministry. This apprehension of AI potentially taking over jobs, ironically, runs alongside a long-standing unease that we are no closer to retiring earlier or working less, despite productivity increasing year in and year out. We feel like we are still working harder, and the conversation around work and play has commonly sounded like a zero-sum game. To work more, one must spend less time at rest or leisure. More personal time must, by definition, mean less time spent in the office.

In the US, official productivity has been rising since the 1980s and shows no signs of slowing down. In France, President Emmanuel Macron faced down fierce opposition to his plan to raise the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64, signing it into law in April even as parts of Paris were consumed by protests. In industrialized economies, professionals have often followed the trends of Silicon Valley in spirit if not in policy, with appearing busy and swamped with work becoming a sign of social capital and prestige. Social media continues to promote hustle culture and “the grind,” although the pandemic may have shifted some attitudes about presenteeism and working from home.

In Japan, corporate culture’s chokehold on the working lives of men and women remains so tight that few people take leave, even when they have off days. There is even a word, karoshi, that denotes death from overwork and has become increasingly well-known outside of Japan. In China, tech moguls touted the “996” work culture: clocking in from 9 a.m. in the morning to 9 p.m. at night, six days a week, for a total of 72 work hours per week. At the other extreme, tang ping (“lying flat”) has become a popular way for some Chinese to express discontent with the demand to perpetually compete and work, and to make a statement against societal and familial expectations.

There are a multitude memes poking fun at contrasting work cultures: see the Protestant work ethic fan versus siesta-enjoyer meme below, which lampoons overwork and laziness through simplistic humor. Despite its simplicity, the meme is still somewhat prescient in its commentary on the conflict between work and rest—or how simplistically we have framed it.

These examples should make it clear that whatever one’s opinion on the moral value of labor and modern capitalism, most of us see work and rest through a prism of conflict and opposition: where there is more of one, there is naturally less of the other. They are not complementary opposites like yin and yang, but ever-clashing, Manichean nemeses. Even the rise of AI and robots seems to be viewed from a dualistic perspective: it will either unburden us of our family and professional problems, or take away all the pride and empowerment we gain from our work.


Yet a recent article published by BDG from Ven. Pomnyun Sunim, Korean Seon master and founder of Jungto Society, gives one pause. He notes that our assumptions about work might be holding us back from conceiving of a more imaginative and flexible interplay:

When our society teaches that all occupations are equally valuable, people may respect an ex-CEO all the more when he retires and works as a security guard at the same company, and not look down on him. Likewise, a retired school principal, instead of idling his time away, may volunteer in assisting young teachers with class preparations or teach a class once a week. If we can distribute work appropriately, lowering the wages and work hours for certain positions, we can create a system which helps older workers to stay employed and to make some money without overworking themselves. . . . In today’s society, elderly people are treated as if they cannot do anything, but if you look around, there is plenty of work for them to do.

In Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s vision, working into old age does not mean taking on backbreaking employment without dignity. It also does not mean throwing the pension system into imbalance, or hogging senior positions that lead to discontent and restlessness among young and ambitious professionals. He advises that stereotypes and preconceptions about work and social status need to be dropped if there is to be a transformation in the very nature of employment.

Such a re-orienting of thinking needs to take into account longer life expectancies that mean longer working lives, and the fact that retirement is not what all old people want, and that even within retirement, meaning can be found in a vocation that is chosen freely. Meaning is an intensely subjective and personal word, but Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s exhortation cuts directly to the heart of the matter: as people grow older, most will leave behind jobs that might have paid the rent or mortgage and raised a family—in other words, jobs that are accepted because they provide economic incentive. But not only are there too few jobs appropriate to older people, whether in terms of work hours, or exertion, or pay, but there are also too few communities that provide this fertile ground for rest-work interplay.


What might these communities of work look like? Unexpectedly, a 2015 Hollywood comedy, The Intern, provided a glimpse, albeit idealized and fictional. The protagonist, 70-year-old Ben (Robert De Niro), appears to be exactly one of the figures that Ven. Pomnyun Sunim has in mind: a former corporate executive who, out of boredom and loneliness, takes on the role of a lowly intern at a startup, providing fatherly and friendly guidance to a much younger boss Jules (Anne Hathaway). He becomes somewhat of a community elder to the workers at the firm, providing advice on timely issues such as work-life balance, fashion, and relationships.

Importantly, Ben’s story arc is possible because Jules participates in a community outreach initiative that aims to take on seniors as interns. Therefore, it is not enough that individuals want it—to a great degree, institutions have the responsibility to create environments that are open for these changes.

Perhaps questioning the ageism, subtle and overt, of our own workplace cultures is the first step in creating these communities of mixed vocations and professional priorities. Most companies will attempt to minimize discrimination based on gender and ethnicity, but age is often seen as either a marker of authority or experience—which is not necessarily the case—or at the opposite end, unsuitability. There is interplay to be had, a melding of things that both sides can offer. From this interplay, community and meaning arises. Age and youth, the individual and the communal, or work and retirement: are they not, at the end of the day, merely conventional concepts that can be transcended? 

See more

France pension reforms: Macron signs pension age rise to 64 into law (BBC News)

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