Friday, July 3, 2015

Turning the Corner

April 1996

Middle-age (age 40-55, by my definition) has gotten a bum rap. When I entered this phase, I realized how wonderful and exciting middle-aged people are. Life just doesn’t get any better. No, seriously.

I was surprised, however, by many unexpected pleasant things that often occur at this time in your life. The popular beliefs concerning the over-40 crowd do little justice to the significant advantages - and I don’t mean an AARP card.   

Self-employed professionals such as farmers defer much of the reward of their careers until later in life. The challenge for those in their 20s and 30s is to avoid the irritation and discouragement that comes along with having to wait it out. 

But unlike many “employee” careers, once a farmer hits the journeyman phase of farming, as I call it, the career curve almost magically heads in the right direction. Why does this happen? Some possible reasons:

1. Your load is growing up. If you started your family in your 20’s, this part of your life will see them begin to spin off into their own orbits, assuming they can achieve escape velocity sufficient to overcome parental gravity. This is becoming somewhat harder, as many parents my age cannot bear to see their children endure even a small drop in their standard of living, and make them unfortunate permanent dependents. Assuming, however, that they do get a job/life, your career train just got lighter.
2. You outlive some problems. Oddly enough, after you make 20 payments on a twenty-year mortgage, you don’t have to make any more. This concept is hard to wrap your mind around, but it is true. If you bought some land, for instance, at age 30, in the fevered flush of adolescence, this milestone is within sight. Your engine picks up a little more momentum.

3. Maturity looks good on you. The distinguished gray of what hair you have left at the temples only makes you more appealing to older landlords. Suddenly the people who own land are people you have served with on a Farm Bureau committee, or went to school with, or are a professional contact from outside activities. Often at this time, previous generations turn over land or other assets to avert excessive estate taxes, or sadly, previous generations pass on.  

While you can’t depend on age alone to solve problems, neither can you enjoy the benefits unless you endure. Meanwhile, around you, people like you are ascending to positions of influence. Your main competitors, at the same time, are reaching the end of the line and leaving. By default, you become the front runner for many of the perks and access to the resources needed for your advancement. The tradition and conservatism under which you chafed early in your career are no longer obstacles, but stairways. You are reaching the optimum part of the torque curve for your engine.

4. Experience. The process of building and running your career train hasn’t left you unchanged. The fire of experience is distilling your education as a young person into the cognac of wisdom. (Can I write a metaphor or what?) Simply being better at your profession enables you to be more efficient with whatever resources at your command. Such increases in productivity have more leverage with your now larger business. This may be the most surprising discovery of the journeyman period.

5. Long term investments. The machine shop, grain bins, tile, etc. that were funded painfully years ago continue to add productivity. Many of the once-in-a-career purchases are done and the cost fully absorbed. Strangely, too, the lust for iron, gadgets, etc. often wanes around this time.
6. Outside factors. If you are involved in a second enterprise, or there is a second career in the family, it could also be peaking now. Like your farm, your family living expenses may be significantly lower without teenage car insurance, mortgage payments, orthodontists, etc.

Interestingly enough, in the current state of employment in America, farmers, along with other self-employed workers, may be in for a bigger late-in-the-career blessing than we think. Much of the “insecurity” phenomenon is based on downsizing that cuts most painfully at mid-career workers. While our beginning years are difficult, and the relative risks perhaps higher, a farm career entering the middle years can be significantly more secure than other occupations. Control of your future is one big reason a carefully planned and diligently pursued farm career starts moving with increasing speed in the late middle years.

At this point security also is personally more important for many of us. The access to land, if you rent on a large scale, now represents the greatest single threat to your success. Maintaining good relationships with landowners is paramount. Likewise, the earlier, difficult purchases of land tend to look much wiser. As your accumulated wealth grows, you may also discover your aversion to risk increases, perhaps because you finally have something to lose. Recognizing this emotional tendency is important because it changes the way you will view changes in farming. New things may not be as bad as we think, we just don’t feel like changing. If you are working with a younger family member, this mind-set will drive him or her right up the wall.  

Increased success in our middle years is not a given, but a good possibility. At the very minimum, the promise of mid-career ought to be telling us to cheer up, and above all, stay in physical shape so we can enjoy it. Eardrums come in handy when you are finally able to afford symphony tickets

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