In Praise of the Moderately Interesting Job

During recent conversations with a 22-year-old, a 30-year-old, and several mothers of millennial and Gen Z adults, I’ve become aware of a phenomenon affecting many young adults: dismay, disappointment, and a persistent sense of failure at not having a job they’re passionate about.

I’ve heard hints of this from the millennials in my life, but Anne Helen Peterson’s book, Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, crystalized my understanding, especially her chapter, “Do What You Love and You’ll Still Work Every Day for the Rest of Your Life.” Her book discusses in depth how cultural definitions of success and workplace expectations have become impossible to achieve, which leads to burnout.

I’ve zeroed in on one of her observations—the fallacy that if you work hard, go to a good college, engage in lots of extracurriculars and internships, and are passionate about your work, you’ll land a wonderful satisfying job. What too many people are discovering is that fulfilling jobs you can be passionate about are rare. Unfortunately, American culture has made “being passionate about work” seem like a realistic goal. In short, young adults have been conned. 

When faced with the realization they aren’t passionate about their jobs and can’t even imagine a job they would be passionate about, they feel like losers. Hidden in the language of “passionate about work” is the warped premise that you are your job. This frustrates and saddens me. Why have we foisted ridiculous standards like “Do what you love and you’ll never work another day in your life” and “Don’t settle for less” on workers? 

I liked the work I did and occasionally I was passionate about a project, but most of the time my work as a marketing communications copywriter could be called a Moderately Interesting Job. My passions (insofar as I’d use the overblown word, “passion” to describe anything I do) lie elsewhere. Some people are passionate about their work and I applaud them, but far more people are not. Work is just work, and that’s a totally valid view.

I’m definitely NOT advocating that people should aspire to crummy jobs in which the pay is low, the schedule is erratic, there’s no opportunity to advance, and benefits are nonexistent. For decades, too many American employers have gotten away with treating employees poorly. I have a great deal of sympathy and respect for people who are walking away from that work.

But if I were queen of the world, I’d characterize work as one potentially fulfilling aspect of your life, a necessity, but not what defines a person’s worth. Often what people are passionate about exists away from the job. You can’t make a living being a sports fan, enjoying the outdoors, or spending time with family and friends. If those activities make you happy, they’re a success—they don’t have to be lucrative. 

If I could, I’d retool American culture’s expectations about work. To me, Moderately Interesting Work or Uninspiring Work with Fun Coworkers or The Job You Don’t Mind Doing are worthy goals. Achievable. Feel free to find your passion elsewhere!

Goodwill, Here I Come

It seemed like a great plan: I’d take my no-longer-needed work clothes to a consignment shop and make a little money. Consignment store clothes are already inexpensive, and consignees only get a cut of the price—say 40 percent. So maybe I’d make $20. Then I’d use the cash for something fun—a little treat.

Choosing what to discard (a la Marie Kondo) was hard. I liked the clothes, felt good in them, and had enjoyed wearing them. But it didn’t make sense to keep them, since I no longer needed business attire. Maybe somebody else could use them. Last winter, I came up with a pile of about 15 pieces—jackets, tops, and pants. I washed them, hung them on hangers, and tried to keep the cat and his walking cloud of cat hair away from them.

Feeling virtuous and lighter, I called around and learned that the stores don’t want winter clothes in the winter. August is when I should bring in my fall and winter items. So I moved the clothes to the back of the closet and made a note on my calendar.

Last week, I loaded up the items and drove them to a nearby consignment shop. The sales associate said it would take an hour or so to go through my stuff. I assumed that meant deciding how to price everything. I took off to run some errands.

When I returned, I warned myself that the prices for my things might be lower than I expected. My cut might be small. Oh well, it was just meant to be fun money. No big deal.

When I found the sales associate, she said, “We are only able to accept a few of your clothes. Everything else is more than three years old.” In other words, my stuff was too out-of-style. I have never considered myself to be a fashion maven, but I thought my clothes were within acceptable limits for middle-aged business style. It’s not like I brought in a bunch of 1980’s power suits with jumbo shoulder pads.Power Suit pattern

“Do you want to take them back with you? If not, we can donate them,” the sales associate suggested. After making the decision to part with the clothes, I wasn’t bringing them home again. “No, go ahead and donate them,” I told her. I glanced at the three things she was keeping for sale and thought, “I’ll be lucky if I get $5 out of this. That’s a lot of work for a cappuccino!”

I laughed as I left the store and mentally paraphrased David Foster Wallace, “That’s another supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again.”

Next time I clean out my closet, I’ll go directly to Goodwill!

Celebrating Retirement

Last week I celebrated one year of retirement. “Celebrated” is a key word. While I was happy to retire last August, I felt a little undercurrent of worry—I didn’t exactly have a plan. For many people, not having a plan sounds like what retirement is all about. But to me, making such a major and irreversible move called for a blueprint. As in what I am I going to do for the rest of my life? Which suddenly seemed more finite.

Retirement is an Identity Change

Retirement is a major identity shift akin to starting a career, marrying a spouse, or becoming a parent. You see yourself differently. A wise friend advised that it might take up to a year to figure out retirement, and it has.

Who Am I Without My Profession?

Americans often identify with our professions. I have worked since I was 16, and I babysat before that, so paid work has been part of my life since I was 11. I went to some effort (getting a graduate degree, moving across the country three times) to launch my career—first as a teacher and then as a copywriter. In 1979, when I started teaching college full-time, the working world wasn’t welcoming to women, and I had to fight to belong. By the time I started copywriting five years later, I had toughened up and the workplace was less openly antagonistic. My early experiences shaped me, and having a career became an integral part of who I am.

My other roles—wife, mother, sister, and friend—have remained constant in retirement. But last August I wondered, “What does it mean to let go of the career I worked so hard to have? What happens to all the experience and skills I’ve gained?” Today, the answer is that I’m still a writer—an essayist and blogger, and I volunteer as a marketing communications copywriter.

Me in retirement--just kidding--it's Rose Totino

Me in retirement–just kidding!

That’s how I see myself, but early on when I mentioned my new status, I learned that the word “retiree” conjures up someone who’s out-of-touch and lives for coupons. Now when I meet people, I simply describe the work I do.Ellen in Hawaii








People Openly Wonder, “What do you do all day?”

It’s a legitimate question. A year ago, I too wondered how to create a life that is fulfilling and fun. What exactly was I going to do with my time? The answer is more of everything I did before. I sleep half-an-hour longer. Most days, I walk for an hour because now exercising doesn’t have to be a trade-off (i.e., either I exercise or I have fun).

Housework, cooking, and grocery shopping still exist in retirement. I’m determined not to become obsessive about any of that, but now I might take an extra five minutes to dry the pots and pans after I wash them instead of letting them air dry as I did before. Why not? I have time.

Camping in WI

Camping in WI

Today, I read, write, travel, socialize, and volunteer more. Probably the main difference is that now I have more time to explore or learn new things in classes at the University of Minnesota, the Loft, or community education.

I wasn’t planning to retire last August at 61; I expected to work two-and-a-half more years. However, when a stroke of luck gave me the opportunity to leave early, I did. I am very grateful to be retired now. Eventually old age will find me. But for now I’m enjoying the gift of retirement. I want to use my time well.

Reflecting on the Business of Being in Business—Ellen Shriner Communications 1993-2011

In 1993, I launched Ellen Shriner Communications when my sons were 1 ½ and 4 years old. I had been looking for full-time work as a marketing communications copywriter and was offered freelance projects. That simultaneously answered the questions: “What should my next job be?” and “How could I spend more time with my boys?” Eventually, I discovered an additional benefit—I had time to take Loft classes, write personal essays and finish a book-length memoir. stacked hat logo

Initially, having my own business was a means to an end. During the next 18 years, it became a huge part of my identity. However, by 2011, I was ready for different challenges, and I gradually shut the business down. Today, as I dismantle what remains of my office in preparation for moving, I’m reflecting on what the business meant to me.

Days when it was great to be self-employed . . .

  • Over the years, I wrote a lot of ads, brochures, direct mail, newsletters, training materials, videos, websites for national clients like Radisson Hotels, Hallmark, Target, US Bank, Medtronic, Sears, Capital One Auto Finance, Eli Lilly, and Pillsbury—work I’m proud of.
  • World Headquarters for Ellen Shriner Communications ;)

    World Headquarters for Ellen Shriner Communications 😉

  • I had the pleasure of teaming up with many talented graphic designers at firms including, InMind Design, Grand Ciel Design, Matt Shimon Creative, Zetah Design, and Fuego Design. We functioned as virtual ad agencies and delivered loads of smart creative work.



  • Some of my work won awards.


Midwest Direct Marketing ARC Awards

  • Being my own boss meant that I could flex my schedule so I could attend my sons’ field trips and Halloween parties.
  • Similarly, I had the flexibility to run errands and manage car or house repairs.

    Tasha, my faithful office mate

    Tasha, my faithful office mate

  • On sunny summer days, I could take a walk or do a little gardening over my lunch hour.

Days when being self-employed wasn’t as great as it sounds . . .

  • Dozens of times I went on sales calls and left them shaking my head at how clueless and cheap some prospects were. More than a handful had to be told “No” when they asked me to work for ridiculously cut-rate prices.
  • Plenty of my clients were so small that you’ve never heard of them—an African entrepreneur, a wedding singer, and a manufacturer of knock-off beauty products—and they had the budgets to match.
  • Sometimes I was in a panic trying to hit my client’s unreasonable deadlines. I’d stay up too late, get up too early, and be jangled by too much caffeine as I tried to power through projects to deliver them on time.
  • No one paid me if I were sick or wanted to take off on vacation.
  • Often I took on projects even if I was too busy or it was inconvenient, because turning down work from good clients drives them away.
  • Equally nerve-wracking were the times I had no work and nothing on the horizon. My billings were bleak after 9/11, when the Great Recession began, and plenty of times in between.
  • Working alone was isolating—an unintended consequence of being a sole proprietor.

After 18 years, I was growing restless. My guys were in college and I was ready for something new. So when a client offered me a part-time job writing marketing communications, it seemed like the perfect solution. I could continue my writing career while maintaining my part-time flexible lifestyle. I’d be paid every two weeks (no more scrambling for billings!) and receive paid vacation and holidays.

At first, I couldn’t get used to the idea that when I left my desk at the end of the day, I was done—no more working nights or weekends! I thought I would miss my home office, but having professional colleagues has more than made up for it. Besides, working in your bathrobe is over-rated.

I was incredibly lucky to have professional work and the flexibility to be with my guys as they grew up. I’m grateful, too, for the time to pursue my literary projects. Today, Ellen Shriner Communications is a proud memory, but Ellen Shriner, Writer is alive and thriving.

The World Headquarters for Ellen Shriner, Writer is wherever I carry my laptop

The World Headquarters for Ellen Shriner, Writer is wherever I carry my laptop