It was just under a year ago today that my cosy existence was turned momentarily upside-down. I’d been with my last employer since I was 48, and having made it through the Global Financial Crisis, which had seen a number of my contemporaries ignominiously unseated from jobs in their early to mid-50s and staring down the barrel at an uncertain future. Back in 2011, my friend Harald was confronted with the ominous fate that no-one of my ilk likes to hear, the three letters A-M-S.
For a long time the word AMS struck up the imagery of the Grim Reaper lurking with his scythe, ready to pounce. Harald had never feared the Reaper. He’d always been in a job where the collective wage agreement and active works council had ensured that if anything the last few years before retirement were comfortable ones, with a smoothe run-off into retirement. Unfortunately when his company hit the buffers at speed, the dynamic changed. He scrabbled around trying to see if he could somehow cross the “finishing line” based on 480 months of insurance. He was decidedly short – about 50-60 months short. This meant that he had to try and fine a new job, but due to his advanced age and the general reluctance of Austrian companies to employ over 50s he ended up being enrolled on reserve-sapping courses with others that slowly drain the colour out of your cheeks. It was somewhat indicative that the high point of one course was that two other course participants fell in love and took off on a motorcycle to the Greek Islands to never be seen again.
Today, as I looked through Der Standard, there was an article that struck home, about a lady in her mid-50s, who had been unemployed for four years since leaving a job in a bookstore. It made me realise my blessings, and how lucky I had been that I had “limped” over the line, with my employer realising that it would be futile to let me go just short of the line, and as painful as it was to have to leave when they wanted me to leave, rather than gliding gracefully and gently into retirement, they did work out at least what the optimal point was so that I was at least spared the pitiful fate that Harald and several others had. Austria’s keyboard warriors, probably sidelined with the flu in case they were in employment were particularly harsh in their dissection of the bookseller’s case.
If there was a bright point about the whole procedure, in my own case, it was knowing that I’d see out the project I was on, which was unlikely to be extended in any case, and then have three months or so winding everything down. There wasn’t the nervous “stay of execution” that others had – they effectively went on to Kettenverträge, with the extensions getting ever shorter and the chances of a white swan event fading with each extension.
Work set me up quite nicely, it was all carefully planned and I was also relieved not to suffer the ignominy of having to do a handover to a successor barely out of school or uni, whose methodological competence was not a patch of that of my colleagues, and who you knew wouldn’t stick out more than six or nine months before jumping ship. Another friend had exactly that fate, and eighteen months later went back to his old job to help get more contribution months, to see him over the line.
Every paycheque he received he said was a step closer to freedom and second time round he felt like he was reduced to the dogsbody, which played heavily on his self-esteem. I know that come April 30th, when he can finally retire, he will be exceptionally glad. The last eighteen or so months he has been obstinate in the extreme about taking leave to be able to have enjoy spare leave to be paid out at the end. As he remarked “those eighteen months ‘holiday'” between his first and second spells with his employer, “were the worst kind of torture.” I can understand why he is desperate to finally draw a line under his professional career.
Another friend is currently waiting to retire as a Trafikant, having had the serendipitous fate that his brother-in-law was due to retire and he stepped into the breach, but he says that selling lottery tickets, magazines and chatting to lonely pensioners is not really a profitable living, particularly as many working people no longer pick up a Standard, Kurier or Presse on their way to work, as once they did.
The sad thing is that this doesn’t affect the managerial elite, who have their luxury pensions padded by directorships, or ex members of parliament. The “Beamten” (civil servants) have a cushy life, although the new hires at authorities and ministries do not enjoy the same conditions that the outgoing ones did. I am amazed to see how law firms exploit fresh graduates on peppercorn salaries while they charge their Mandanten astronomical fees.
Work had suggested that I could always teach English for a while to see me through if I fell short of the line marked out in the sand. I knew I’m not cut out for it, especially without any qualifications. Times have moved on. I would need a CELTA or DELTA qualification (my eyes glazed over at the thought of retraining) and I understand it to be a cut-throat market. A Scot I know near Innsbruck says how bad the market for translation and teaching has got – the fact that outgoings so often go out long before returns are seen means that his situation is now more precarious than at any time in the last ten years. He laments that he teaches a Bank Director two hours a week, and that the Bank Director is on more day than he makes in a fortnight, and that is one of the better paying clients.
Returning to my “fortunate” case, it was still not all a bed of roses. With my wife now still four years away from retirement, it chipped away at me that I was somehow failing in my duties as a breadwinner. Fortunately, one minor advantage of not having children was not having to worry how to have to keep the mask on in front of them and to economise to make sure that they don’t also suffer. Others haven’t had it that simple. I felt guilty for a while that I wouldn’t be working until my real intended retirement date, and that I would sidestep the soul destroying AMS Reaper and sessions of futility with my Sachbearbeiterin, although in my defence I had done nothing wrong to deserve the fate. I was lucky that I finished work in the summer of 2017 and have kept busy during the winter. It has been a very grey winter this year and I think had it not been for having other projects to work on (Nephewgate) and having a vicious decluttering and making sure I stayed active and headed out and about, this winter would have been much harder. If you know someone who is struggling and becoming reclusive, get them out for a drink or over for food and keep them company. I realise that it isn’t that simple, and hospitality cannot sort out existential problems, but as I was grateful to my friends who refused to let me face it on my own, make sure you are there for someone else.