What It's Like To Be A: Mail Carrier 

An old timer played it safe with his career; he advises millennials to do the opposite.

Photo by Daria Nepriakhina

Jimmy Fallon has said that it was his fallback plan if he didn’t succeed as a comedian; actor John Ratzenberger famously portrayed Cliff Clavin for 273 episodes on Cheers; this is what it's been like to be an actual mail carrier for over 30 years.

At 24 years old, there are a lot of questions you ask yourself. Where am I going? What am I doing? Who will I become? I was 24 years old in 1985, and I was asking myself those same questions. I had just dropped out of community college and begun my journey into the workforce, having no clue what I wanted to do with my life. Well, my “journey” ended up more like a quick day trip when I accepted a position with the United States Postal Service. It was probably the third “real’ job I had ever had, after some amateur grocery bagging and a short stint at UPS.

Today, over 30 years later, I have the same job: a mail carrier for the United States Postal Service.

The Lure of Security  

The idea of working one job position your entire career is almost unheard of by today’s standards, but for me, it was never really a question. My father had always instilled in me the importance of security. Money doesn’t equal happiness, but poverty sure does equal misery. More important than landing my “dream job” was landing one that would provide a steady income. Through a little time and a little research, I discovered the wonderful world of a government union and the Postal Service. Working a government job for the United States Postal Service would offer me good benefits, a good pension, and a good life. With no degree to stand on, you don’t get much better than that. So I applied for a clerk position at the Butler, NJ Post Office, took the civil service test, and got the job.

I suppose you could say I haven’t exactly worked the same job for over 30 years, since within 3 months I knew I didn’t want to be a clerk. Even now at 54, I’m an active guy. I needed something outdoors, where I could move around a little. Lo and behold a mail carrier job opened up, a walking route at that, and I transferred positions. I’ve transferred locations 4 times over 30 years, but my position has stayed the same.

Knowing What Won’t Make You Happy 

While I’m plenty happy with my job, I had entertained ideas of moving to upper management. When I first started with USPS I was delivering a walking route. Walking for miles from house to house isn’t so bad in your 20s and 30s, but what about in my 40s and 50s? The possibility of physical limitations forced me to consider it. But as anyone who has been in the workforce for years can tell you, not is everyone management material. I wasn’t sure of a lot of things, but I was sure I didn’t want to be in management. I just never had the personality for it.

As my daughters lovingly tell me, I’m a bit of a pushover. I’m just a laid back guy who would rather follow orders then give them. The only positions above a Mail Carrier in the Postal service is Supervisor and Postmaster, and neither of those would work for me. So, I did my walking route for 8 years, during which time I met my first wife, the mother of my children and also a Mail Carrier, and transferred to a city where I could have more longevity with a driving route. With my pregnant wife and 1 yr old daughter, we moved to a small lake town in New Jersey called Hopatcong, and I haven’t left since.

Daily Duties

Photo by Mathyas Kurmann

Each work day has gone about the same way for the past 30 years. I come into work, clock in, and begin to case mail (organize the mail by address) for my route. Once the mail is cased and put in bins, I load up the truck. The truck gets loaded up in the sequence that the mail is being delivered. You don’t want to have to go the back of your truck every other house, so the sequencing aids in time management and efficiency. This took me a couple of months to perfect—everyone does it slightly differently. Once I’ve completed the delivery to my 620 stops, I come back to the office, bringing the missent and outgoing mail to the clerk to sort. Other than maybe cleaning up my area for tomorrow, my day is complete. I clock out, and go home. The day starts at 7:30AM and ends at 4:30PM, generally like clockwork. The only time of year our hours get pushed longer is during the holidays. Yes, that’s thanks to you, Amazon Prime users. The more packages that have to be brought to the door, the longer my day. But hey, that’s why you tip your mailman during the holidays, right?

At this point, your eyes are probably lolling back in your head due to boredom. It’s true, the job isn’t glamorous. My days are generally identical, but I haven’t found it monotonous yet. Many of us do the same thing every day at work, with slight variances. Think about it—you come into your office, make your coffee, check your email, and begin the day’s work. Maybe every Tuesday and Thursday you have the same meeting. And every Friday you order out from your favorite takeout spot. Just like in any other field of work, something comes up every day to make my day unique. Maybe the amount of parcels are really heavy today so I have to do some more walking, or the weather is making me take my route more carefully. Sometimes it’s as simple as stopping for 5 minutes (sorry boss) to speak with someone on your route. I spend a lot of time in the truck alone with my own thoughts. Opening yourself up to conversation with someone outside your normal circle is something people just don’t do anymore, so it’s refreshing to have a quality conversation with someone new for just a few minutes and hear about other people’s lives. You think bartenders hear plenty of gossip? You won’t believe what people tell the mailman. My position is repetitive, without a doubt, but trust me when I say it’s never boring.

Pension Perfection

In 5 years when I turn 59, I will retire from the United States Postal Service. One of the many benefits of a government job is receiving my pension plan—part combination of civil servant benefits, a 401K, and social security pay— within a certain number of years, rather than when reaching a certain age. I have not made a huge amount of money, or lived a lavish lifestyle, but I have taken care of myself and my family and now, I will get to retire with plenty of youth to spare—something I fear my daughters will never have.

In my opinion, most millennials will be working well into their 70s, due in no small part to chasing their “dream job.” Before you write me off as a grumpy old man, let me clarify: I am behind the idea of working a job that you actually enjoy. In my generation things moved very quickly— graduate high school, get a job, get married, have kids— hopefully all by the time you reach your mid-20s. Today, things move much more slowly. The pressure is off kids to turn into “adults.” Parents of this generation preach the opposite of what was preached to us because, let’s face it, most of it didn’t work. Millennials have heard for years to not rush into marriage—since most, including 2 of my own, will end in divorce. Don’t rush into moving out of your parent’s house— save your money to buy a home that you can actually afford, rather than spreading yourself too thin and living in debt (which hey, after 2 divorces, I also did). Switch majors, and then switch careers if you have to— you’re going to be working into your golden years, you might as well like it. But unfortunately, all this good advice may be for naught due to the state of both our economy and the workforce today.

 What Does the Future Hold?

The problem with constantly changing careers in such a volatile economy is - you guessed it - lack of security. My oldest daughter originally went to cosmetology school and then later decided she wanted to go back to college. She was bored, she was unhappy, and she wanted to “expand her mind.” She took a risk, one that many young people in the workforce take, to leave a secure job for a field she’s more interested in where she may or may not find a job. With the unemployment rate where it is, a college degree today is worth about as much as a high school degree was 30 years ago. But with high risk also comes high reward. Luckily for my daughter she landed a great position at a respected advertising firm that pays her well, offers her good benefits, and has room for growth. I say lucky not because she didn’t work for it or isn’t qualified; she’s lucky because so are the 500 other young people who apply for those same positions. She took a risk and was rewarded.

With the state that Social Security is in, millennials either have to take the risk on a bigger paycheck or work the secure lower paid job longer to be able to afford the ever-increasing cost of living. I feel for you, Generation Y, as you are stuck between a rock and a hard place. While the secure path worked for me, I don’t think I would recommend it to the up and comers.

Let’s face it, positions like mine are hard to find now and the Postal Service will probably be privatized in the next 20 years anyway. So keep taking the risks and fighting for the dream job, because it’s all a risk at this point. Job security doesn’t exist in a volatile economy. Fight for the big fish, get the reward, and then take your parents on a nice, long vacation for making them support your “lazy” millennial butt so long. 

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