Happiness at work: what our grandparents can teach us

Happiness at work: what our grandparents can teach us

The world of work has changed beyond recognition in the past few years, let alone in the past few decades. Most of our parents and grandparents had very different jobs from ours – and their motivations and expectations when entering the workforce were completely different too. This doesn’t mean their experiences have no relevance for us.

We asked several retirees to reflect on their careers and the lessons they learned from their time in the workforce. What advice would they give young people today? And what – with hindsight – is the key to finding happiness at work?

1. Tessa, 75: ‘Be part of a team

For Tessa, who worked as a nurse, happiness came from working with people. “Being part of a team was always important. I have two sisters and I was at boarding school, so I always had company,” she says.

Tessa had wanted to be a children’s speech therapist but she didn’t get the required grades. She finally decided to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a nurse, focusing on the care of children. She thrived in a workplace where she was constantly around people. “Teamwork is definitely one of the most important things – and also the reward of helping people. Whatever you say, whatever you do, however little it is, it will contribute to their wellbeing,” she says.

“Teamwork (…) and also the reward of helping people, Whatever you say, whatever you do, however little it is, it will contribute to their wellbeing.”

Even after retiring, Tessa continued to volunteer at her local hospice in England and she still helps out from time to time, though not in a medical role anymore. “I loved work and I missed it a lot when I retired. I missed the companionship of patients and staff, because I had always been around people,” she says. “I think the pandemic has been really hard. Suddenly so many people were part of a team, but ‘apart’ from the team.”

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2. Anthony, 83: ‘Do something you actually enjoy’

Tessa’s husband, Anthony, says he wishes he had had the opportunity to switch careers earlier. “It’s easier in today’s age to change jobs than it was during our careers. You should do things that you actually enjoy doing,” he says.

“It’s easier in today’s age to change jobs than it was during our careers. You should do things that you actually enjoy doing.”

Anthony started his career working in computer programming in the US and he worked on the very first computers in the 1960s. After travelling around the world, he started his own computer business in London, which he ran for several years. But instead of staying in a technical line of work that he didn’t find very fulfilling, he would have liked to try something new. “I think in the 1970s, I should have acknowledged that I didn’t want to pretend I was a computer expert anymore and [should have] taken the opportunity to change careers completely. Perhaps I would have gone into the travel industry or something like that,” he says.

Another important lesson he learnt as an entrepreneur was to “make sure you trust the people you are working with,” he says. “I had one or two experiences where I didn’t do enough investigation into the people I was going into business with. You’ve got to like them and believe that they are honourable and honest people.”

3. Stuart, 70: ‘Never give up’

Stuart, who was born without the use of his left arm, didn’t have an easy start. “Back when I was in my 20s, nobody would hire me,” he says. “The first thing they would say was, ‘You’re crippled. Our insurance won’t cover you.’ Today, that’s unacceptable but back then I couldn’t find a job doing anything.”

Throughout his twenties, Stuart worked with his father painting houses. But as he got older, he decided he wanted to find a job that was better suited to his skills. Determined to show his potential, he asked a company that sold printing machines to give him an opportunity. He said he would work for free, and created a job for himself selling the products the machines produced. “If you want a job, don’t give up,” he says. “Even if they tell you ‘No, we’re not hiring right now.’ I never accepted that answer and I just kept going.” His resourcefulness paid off. “I proved that I could sell their finished product, and that opened the door for me to a new career path,” he says.

“I proved that I could sell their finished product, and that opened the door for me to a new career path.”

Stuart built a successful career as a salesman working for several companies in the printing industry. But it all started from learning to sell his own skills. “I never in my entire life put together a résumé. I either talked my way in, or was sought after by other companies,” he says. “I wanted to be a salesperson and I never gave up, rather than listening to people telling me what I couldn’t do.”

4. Josh, 68: ‘Create a friendly work environment’

Doing something you love is key to happiness, but Josh, an architect based in Los Angeles, adds that surrounding yourself with the right people is just as important. “You won’t find satisfaction at work unless you find people you connect with,” he says.

Freshly graduated from architecture school in 1980, Josh moved to London where he did his first internships. One of the best things about the experience was his colleagues, who encouraged the kind of positive atmosphere needed in a creative work environment. There was a real sense of camaraderie. We shared mealtimes and went to the pub after work. And there was an open, friendly atmosphere where we could share ideas,” he recalls.

“We shared mealtimes and went to the pub after work. And there was an open, friendly atmosphere where we could share ideas.”

After living in Amsterdam and Kansas City, he moved to Los Angeles where set up his own architecture firm. When it came to founding his own business, he says, hiring a good team was key. “Creating an atmosphere that is open and friendly – that is the most important part of a workplace,” he says. “I’m proud to say that the first people I hired are still friends today.”

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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