There are plenty of reasons to retire early. The fourth blog post I ever published on this site was titled the Top 5 Reasons to Retire Early, and we’ve recently touched on the many risks of not doing so.
I also recognize that there are risks to retiring early and good reasons to keep working. The fifth blog post published on Physician on FIRE back in 2016 counted down the Top 5 Reasons NOT to Retire Early.
A thoughtful approach that considers both sides is paramount when considering such a major life decision. It’s also valuable to hear different people’s perspectives, and we’re bringing you another blogger’s perspective in today’s Friday Feature.
This post, written by someone who climbs rocks for fun and studied them for a living, was originally published by Clipping Chains.
When I first discovered financial independence, the thought to retire in my 30s warmed my soul like a batch of hot stew on a late February night. If I could rely on the wondrous and fantastic powers of compound growth to build a bitchin’ snowball of money, I’d never need to work again.
And it was never about the money. It was about the life. I yearned for a life spent in pursuit of passion, surrounded by a vibrant and meaningful community, with copious time to immerse in nature, climb, travel, and most importantly…sleep. The rigid and mechanical pipeline of school to work was cracked and beginning to leak.
So, what’s not to love?
1. Work is a fundamental element of happiness.
From day one when I (sort of) quit my job, I knew on an instinctive level that I needed something meaningful and productive beyond my own selfish pursuit of climbing goals. Is there data to support my instinctive drive for some form of work?
Professional and white-collar employees are happier.
Those with white-collar or leadership roles tend to view themselves as happier than those with blue-collar jobs. Disparities of overall happiness exist throughout the globe. However, in general, those with professional or white-collar jobs report higher levels of happiness than their blue-collar counterparts.
If you feel like a “7,” then you’ve made it! A healthy level of 30% suck is indeed the human experience, and that’s okay.
Where you live matters.
Those of us fortunate enough to live in North America, Australia, New Zealand, Western Europe, and even much of Latin America and the Caribbean experience above-average levels of happiness, no matter the work.
Remember that happiness = 7? Those studies, conducted in the US in the 80s and 90s, showed that broad demographics of people reported a happiness level of around 7. Position on the socioeconomic ladder didn’t appear to materially matter. These data seem to support that claim, at least in these areas of the world.
I find this conclusion to be incredibly important: If you feel like a “7,” then you’ve made it! A healthy level of 30% suck is indeed the human experience, and that’s okay.
Trends on job satisfaction
In general, folks with well-paying jobs report overall higher levels of happiness. Perhaps this doesn’t come as a surprise. However, we will reveal in an upcoming post why new research is throwing a wrench in the old concept that money doesn’t buy happiness. But we must be careful with these simple, yet potentially deceptive claims.
Perhaps more important than pay, we find that work-life balance is an especially important predictor of happiness. This trend resonates deeply with me. I worked in a high-paying industry, but the lack of flexibility and work-life balance undermined my enjoyment of those jobs.
Other important factors include job variety, the need to learn new skills, and autonomy. Job security and social capital (support from coworkers) is also associated with happiness.
Being unemployed sucks.
Unemployed individuals really appear to suffer, for some of the reasons we will soon explore. The unemployed report around 30% more negative emotional experiences in their daily lives. Is this the result of both the stress of unpaid bills and a life without purpose?
It’s fair to assume that those counted in this study are involuntarily unemployed through the loss of a job or some other event of misfortune. It’s not clear if those choosing to retire were included in these data.
What lessons can we draw from the dissatisfaction of the unemployed to assess the degree to which we will or will not be happy in retirement?
2. Retirement can remove daily structure.
Love it or leave it, but a job or school forces a routine. And daily routines have a profound effect on mental health. Believe me, I’ve been mocked and teased for years for my Type-A and ritualistic adherence to a routine. However, without these gutter-guards on the bowling lane that is my life, I’d certainly drift off the rails into the dreaded malaise of self-loathing. But that’s me.
Once we retire, it may be tempting to unfold a lawn chair, pop a beer (or six), and slip into restful bliss and a well-defined farmer’s tan. As days turn to weeks and weeks turn to months, however, we may find that we just needed a break.
In response to chronic stress, a body under allostatic load can benefit greatly from rest. However, as we reach a point of recovery from these stressors, unadulterated rest can lead to a decline in physical and mental health.
Work is a stressor, but perhaps there is upside to stress.
3. Early retirement can result in a lack of purpose.
The first phase of a retirement is often filled with pleasure: copious rest, travel, or other forms of adventure. Our lives can become a rad highlight reel on Instagram, but pleasures don’t ultimately replace purpose. Purpose can be pleasurable, but not all pleasure is purposeful.
By the virtue that we are paid for our services, we are needed in our jobs. We fill a necessary role, and we are important. Solo entrepreneurs who sell a product in demand also sense this palpable feeling of purpose. A pianist who bows before an applauding audience knows that great vibration of importance and affirmation.
Those who lack purpose in their jobs are some of the most frustrated and cynical employees. Once we voluntarily retire, finding purpose is no longer the obligation of our employer—that job now falls on us.
Humans are a social species. Our individual relevance is highly dependent on our importance to the herd. So, you can imagine that endless, unbalanced days in a hammock or working the clipping beta at the fifth bolt with the sole intention of sending our first 8a will ultimately lead us to underlying (and perhaps difficult to diagnose) frustration.
Let’s examine this social connection further.
4. Social connections may be harder to obtain once we retire.
Most jobs and schools provide built-in opportunities for socialization. Even if we aren’t best friends with our coworkers, we still spend numerous moments each working day getting socialization reps—a few comments in an unnecessary meeting, smiles and waves in the hallway, or laughing awkwardly and uncomfortably at another one of Peter’s questionably offensive jokes.
Unfortunately, in the modern world we are increasingly replacing meaningful social and civic engagements with shallower and less meaningful quick-hit social connections. The book Bowling Alone, by Robert D. Putnam draws on evidence from over 500,000 interviews over 25 years to show that we meet in person less often, are more distrustful of our neighbors, and socialize with friends and family less frequently. And despite a surge in popularity in bowling at the time of writing, bowling leagues are in decline. We are bowling alone.
Is this growing disengagement from meaningful social connection a key driver to the rising fear of crime despite falling crime rates?
This shift in social dynamics shares its roots in changes in workplace and family dynamics. However, a major culprit is our continued and prolific use of technological diversions, particularly television and computers. And here’s the kicker: this book was written in 2000, long before social media took over our collective consciousness.
After we retire—or even with a solo entrepreneurial endeavor—creating, cultivating, and maintaining relationships can be difficult. Maintaining a strong social community is a key element of life contentment.
Related Post: Digital Minimalism: Give Me Back My Brain
5. People are dubious of those who retire early.
I’m going to focus on the anecdotal for a moment. Someone 50 and above may be able to fly the early retirement flag proudly without external judgement. However, it gets a little weird for us in the younger demographic.
Simply put, I’ve found most folks dubious of early retirement for someone my age (mid-30s). Honestly, I thought almost anyone would be impressed and want to learn more. However, our values and experiences might lead us to different conclusions. For instance, someone with traditional or conservative values might put great stock into the idea of working for a living. Folks of any stripe probably value being an integral part of society. And perhaps there’s something to that (see “purpose” section above). Those who retire as an older demographic have “served their time.”
Of greater concern are the folks who put two and two together and recognize that someone with enough money to not work is someone worth taking advantage of. This is one of the primary reasons I have found those who retire early reluctant to share their story. There is a fear that a family member or stranger might want to slip in on that financial harvest grown after years of careful and loving cultivation.
6. To retire early requires a bomb-proof financial strategy.
Finally, a true retirement requires us to really have our finances dialed. Some early retirement enthusiasts believe that their worst-case scenario is simply everyone else’s everyday scenario—i.e., they can just go back to work.
Not really. The rate of technological change in my industry in the last 5-10 years is astounding. Having missed a few of those years, and I’d be at a severe disadvantage in the competitive hiring process. It’s only been 16 months since I left my old job, but it feels like years.
The benefit of keeping our foot on the working pedal is that we still have not only purpose and relevance, but we maintain employable skills. Maybe not skills relevant to our former jobs, but new skills that we find both enjoyable, engaging, and potentially employable to someone, somewhere.
After all, isn’t it exhausting wondering whether you need the 4%, 3.5%, or 3.25% safe withdrawal rate? With an employable skillset, adherence to early retirement financial rules can be much more flexible. Flexible, like someone else bending over who is not me.
(Related Post: The Long Approach to Being Scared of Investing)
What does this all mean?
So, does this mean I’m going to blow the digital dust off my old corporate resume, iron my neglected slacks, polish my dress shoes, and head back to the office? No way, man!
Well, never say never. However, I have a strong feeling that the days of spending 40+ hours a week in a corporate office are over for me. I realize that someone’s gotta do it—I think—but last I checked there were plenty of people looking for work in my old industry.
That said, I also have to recognize that some of this debate simply boils down to the rich, meaty essence of semantics. Some of the early retirees famous in FIRE circles, including Mr. Money Mustache and The Mad Fientist have gone on to balance a number of deep work and community endeavors. While these folks aren’t exactly punching a clock, they’re not spending the day in a lazy boy glued to a TV either.
We all want to believe we either live a really great or a really shitty life.
My opinion: studies on workplace contentment and overall happiness are generally misleading to some degree. Asking someone to provide honest feedback on their happiness is asking for error, for one simple reason: confirmation bias.
We all want to believe we either live a really great or a really shitty life. There’s not much room in our consciousness for mediocrity. Either we are a conqueror, where everything we touch is cast in gold; or we are the victim of a rigged system. In this rigged system, rich fat cats control the globe and the rest of us are destined to suffer for eternity.
If our values teach us that being a mid-level manager with a 3000-square foot house in the suburbs is a good life, we are more likely to affirm that belief once we obtain those results. Likewise, those who value equality and justice might affirm a life working for a non-profit organization with low pay, believing that the suburb guy is trash. Finally, those who value spiritualism and nature might find sleeping under a rock to be a life well-lived. Normalization is inherently lacking when humans are asked to objectively evaluate their lives.
So…should I retire early?
My recommendation is to find work that you really enjoy doing. Make sure the work is challenging. Be certain that these tasks involve learning new skills. Where possible, find work that requires regular social contact with enjoyable people (outside of social media). If not, focus on building an external and in-person social network and community unrelated to work.
If you’ve amassed a healthy financial position, then congratulations⏤this meaningful work does not need to pay.
However, if I’m being honest, paid work seems to bring more relevance to the endeavor. There’s something about the exchange of dollars for a service rendered that helps with affirmation or purpose. Or maybe that’s just me.