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Down on the Farm: Kiwi careers

Eric Bergeson

While passing through the capitol of New Zealand, Wellington, we visited some of the people who hosted me during my last visit as a student twenty-five years ago.

Marcus was a young architect when his roommate at the time, a teacher named Alex, brought me home from school and allowed me to sleep on their couch for a couple of weeks.

I didn't know, but I assumed that talented Marcus had progressed far down his career path and was now designing earthquake-proof skyscrapers for shaky Wellington. I was wrong. Like many New Zealanders, Marcus isn't one to climb the ladder in the way we do in America.

After tearing down the old apartment building we had lived in, Marcus and his father designed a beautiful upscale apartment complex in its place. Then they built it with their own hands.

Now full, that apartment building provides them a good income. Marcus is back to designing buildings, but he only takes enough jobs to keep active.

Then I gave Pat and Rodney a call. When I first landed in New Zealand as a twenty-two-year-old student teacher, they generously hosted me for a week.

Pat was a home economics teacher. Rodney worked for the power company. They were the solidest of solid couples, almost boring in their utter conventionality. When I found they had moved to the beach town of Paraparaumu, I figured they had retired from their solid jobs at the proper time and were whiling away their days in their garden.

I was wrong.

When in their upper fifties, Pat and Rodney quit their jobs and moved to England to take menial jobs for a couple of years for a change.

After failing to land a joint janitorial job at the Royal Stamp Collectors Society in London, they both ended up working in their former fields. After a year in England, they had enough and returned to New Zealand. Now, in retirement, they have started a non-profit organization to benefit children.

Such career flexibility is common amongst the Kiwi's.

At a rest home we visited in the small farm town of Matamata, I glanced through the biographies of the board of directors.

One bio caught my eye. It was of a man who owns the local supermarket. He was a member of many clubs and organizations around town, in addition to serving on the hospital board which, in New Zealand, means a good deal of work. Oh, and he "maintains a small medical practice."

"What?" I asked the administrator, expecting the term "medical practice" in Kiwi parlance to include something like massage or foot rubbing.

No, the administrator replied, the man was a fully-practicing medical doctor who found that he wanted a change of careers. So, he started a supermarket!

Flummoxed, I asked what is it with these people who leave apparently high-profile jobs and move into jobs that don't even seem related.

"Oh, it happens all the time," he said, pointing out a successful local dairy farmer who sold his herd, rented out his land, earned his RN and is now the director of nursing at his hospital. The money is less, but he wanted a change.

We met a chemical company CEO who now runs a winery. We met a occupational therapist who now earns her living making hats and dresses.

In fact, it almost seems the exception when a New Zealander keeps the same career for their entire working life. They don't just change jobs, they create new careers entirely. And the new careers aren't always more lucrative.

Alex, my fellow teacher and host years ago, almost apologized for still teaching. But despite a career path he apologetically described as boring, he spent a few years in Japan teaching.

After meeting all these people with dual, triple or wildly varying careers, I realized why I felt comfortable here.

When I tried to explain my jobs, which include selling petunias, writing columns, and now chasing around New Zealand visiting nursing homes, not a soul has commented on the weird variety.

Instead, they say "good on ya!" and pitch in with their always interesting thoughts about aging in New Zealand.

It makes me feel at home, even 8,000 miles from the nearest package of lefse.