Why You Should Never Retire

Given the name of this site, Physician on FIRE, you might well come away with the impression that I am a fan of not only the financial independence part of FIRE, but also the retiring early portion.

And that would be a correct impression, by the way.

But just as there are many roads to Dublin in investing, there are many roads to personal satisfaction.

What happens if your road travels through an enjoyable, rewarding job that simply doesn’t feel like work? Does having enough money matter if you don’t want to stop working and you enjoy that to which you devote 40+ hours a week?

Can I Retire Yet? explores this in today’s post.

 

 

I recently received an anonymous email from someone who identified themself as a 70+ year-old long-time blog reader who is well past the point of financial independence. He wrote:

“I agree with the FI part of FIRE but I have no interest in the RE. I’m old enough to retire and have enough that I don’t worry about outliving my money. 

My life revolves around my career. I work with great people on fascinating projects. I don’t hunt, fish, play golf, or video games. My approach to life these days revolves around the Japanese concept of Ikigai. 

I’ve reached the center of that Venn diagram. When people ask me about retiring, I tell them I’ll retire when they pull the mouse out of my cold, dead fingers.

Instead of FIRE, I do FIDR (DR=don’t retire).

So, if you ever want to hear a counterpoint to FIRE, feel free to contact me.”

I challenged him to explore what was behind some of his sentiments. In turn, he challenged some of my deeply held beliefs.

I hope our exchange will prompt you to consider why you are pursuing retirement, what retirement means to you, and what you want to do with your life when needing more money no longer drives your actions….

(Editor’s notes: For clarity, the reader’s ideas are shared in normal font. My follow up questions are in bold. His name is not shared out of respect for his request to write anonymously.)

 

Financial Independence, Never Retire

 

I like the idea of Financial Independence (FI) but I can’t get my head around Retiring Early (RE). I’m 70+ and have been working full time or going to school or both since I was 16.

I guess I missed out on the retire early movement. My identity is tied to my profession and I’m not sure what I would do if I did retire–probably die in a few months.

I don’t just put in a nominal 40 hours a week into work, but am involved in all sorts of professional activities and easily put in 60 hours per week. And I plan to do it until I no longer can. Why not?

I work with a great group of people, helping our customers solve their problems and they keep giving me money to do it. My well of ideas hasn’t gone dry yet. I’m still doing original, creative things on the job.

I don’t need to be employed. I have several million dollars split about 50-50 between post-tax money and tax-deferred 401(k)/IRA money. Between my wife and me (mostly me), we earn about $200K+ per year. We own our house and cars clear.

I grew up poor and watch our spending carefully. Spending wisely feels good to me. I squeeze the toothpaste tube until I get out the last molecule. My kids say I dress like a homeless person. I genuinely don’t care about fashion.

How much of a role do you think growing up poor has to do with why you still work as much as you do? Is your need for security over all else the real driver for continuing to work as much as you still do? 

Do you think this has anything to do with why you have such a hard time having “fun?” Is there any sense of guilt for the financial success you’ve experienced? 

Have you thought about how much would be “enough” where you can relax a bit (even if it doesn’t mean you retire fully)? Does that concept interest you at all? 

 

I’m not driven much by money anymore. I have enough.

I published my first book when I was in my early 30s and it was a bit of a paradigm shifting work. Since then, I’ve written several books and hundreds of journal papers and conference presentations and serve on many important committees. As one woman put it, I’m a “rock star” in our industry.

Yet, while I’m a small-niche celebrity, I blend in seamlessly in my hometown. Why would I want to stop contributing to my profession and the world in general, and instead spend my time trying to get to the next level in Mario Brothers?

Publishing another journal paper that advances the state-of-the-art is more “fun” to me than killing a deer. Having a foreign graduate student approach me at a conference to ask for my autograph while giving me a small gift is more “fun” than lying on the beach getting sunburned.

I have all the “stuff” that I need, and my biggest problem is where to put it all. I doubt we’ll outlive our money and “you can’t take it with you”, so we’re really just working to give the money to our kids (and some charities) that they hopefully won’t waste.

What would I do if I retire? I spend between 30-60 min per day running (slowly these days) or biking. After that, what?

I don’t hunt or fish or golf or boat or play video games. There is almost nothing worth watching on TV. During my career, I’ve travelled just about every place I would ever want to go.  If you see the inside of one plane, you’ve seen them all. I have a nice group of friends and relatives that I can call and visit. The only things on my bucket list are things I can’t directly control (e.g., have more grandkids).

Are there any new skills you would like to learn, places you would like to see or experience? There’s much more to travel than the inside of an airplane such as different cultures, foods, history, architecture, natural environments, etc.

Are there relationships you would like to foster?

If nothing outside of working in your career interests you, have you considered why that is? Is it something you’re comfortable exploring?

To me travel is about 95% trying to do things like ask “Where’s the men’s room?” in Italian. And 5% “Wow, look at the leaning tower!” It’s not worth the trouble.

I’m learning new skills every day. As colleagues from my generation retire or die, I’m building new relationships with the next generation and serving as a mentor to many younger professionals.

While I admit to workaholic tendencies, not all my time is spent on work. My family is my highest priority. I wish they lived closer.

I have a lot of friends in the running/biking community. Until recently, I served on the board of directors of our local running club.

I’m on an advisory committee for a local university and the maintenance crew for our local rails-to-trails organization. Regularly I’m out there with my chain saw or shovel keeping the trails in great shape.

And we still have time for social friends. For example, I still regularly see my oldest friend. We lived across the street from one another when we were born and went through grade school, little league, etc. together.

When I try to have “fun”, I have to ask people around me “Am I having fun yet?” While when I solve problems at work, I think, “This is fun.”

Occasionally the grass may look greener on the other side of the fence, but I’ve found it almost never is.

This realization that the “grass isn’t always greener” is a key lesson for those on the fastest path to FIRE. It’s something I’ve shared openly in my writing.

However, I’ll push back a bit and ask if you’re putting in 60 hours a week, how much of that time is devoted to the “fun” part? Is there truly nothing in the world you would rather be doing?

 

I try to be the person who brings fun to our work environment. I’m sort of the Dilbert on our team. I try to leave people smiling when I interact with them. The amount of time I spend on administrative BS is tolerable.

But if you’re on this site, you’re interested in my investment strategy. It’s simply “be lucky and don’t do anything stupid.”

Mainly, I’ve been in the right place at the right time. I worked for an established privately held company that gave out stock options. When they went public, I moved to the next level of financial independence.

As far as my current investment strategy is concerned, I’m trying to gradually divest from my company stock because I need to increase my diversification in general. It’s a good stock but I own too much of it and I lost a lot of money in the recent market downturn because of it.

I’m generally investing in low risk stocks, like utilities and Vanguard funds. To get through any short term downturns, I have over $100K in FDIC insured CDs with varying maturity dates. I’m more interested in protecting assets than growing them.

While Medicare costs are high because of our income, we have received more than we have paid in. My wife has survived cancer, a heart attack (with a life-flight helicopter ride), bunions, knee replacement…. and living with me! We have paid almost nothing out-of-pocket for deductibles or co-pays some time now.

Unless there is a general collapse of society or we do something really stupid, my wife and I can probably go about 50 years before we run out of money.

That was an interesting answer to that question. I appreciate your willingness to share some financial details, and certainly some readers will as well.

But what I’m really fascinated by is the idea that you emailed me about originally, that there is nothing in your life that you would want to do aside from the job you’ve always done.

I suppose that could mean you were one of a very fortunate few who stumbled into THE thing they were meant to do in life. Or maybe it means that you’ve never been willing to explore deeper questions and take on bigger challenges.

Or maybe as with many things in life, the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. Any thoughts on that?

All I really want is to watch my kids and grandkids grow up to be successful and happy. If I can leave them a few dollars, all the better.

After that, my next biggest goal is to be a multiple organ donor, but I can wait for that. It’s sort of a one-way street.

Bottom line is that you don’t need to retire to be happy. I have reached the state that the Japanese refer to as ”Ikigai” where that which…

  • you love to do
  • you are good at
  • the world needs
  • you get paid for

…all come together.

Once you reach Ikigai, the question is “why stop?”

 

Chris’ Two Cents

I want to thank this reader for sharing a different viewpoint than what you normally read here.

You may be surprised to learn that, while this reader’s values and the path he chose are far different than the one I have chosen, I agree with a good bit of what he says. He offers important insights to consider.

 

The Important Role of Work

In my original career as a physical therapist, I had the chance to work with many people who were dealing with age related mobility, medical, and cognitive issues. My observations caused me to question my assumptions as I was heading down the path to early retirement.

Many of the people who I admired and who were vibrant into their old age were still doing meaningful work into their 70’s and even 80’s. At the same time, many others in their age cohort who retired had withdrawn from society. They seemed to lack purpose and declined into old age more rapidly.

I agree with this reader’s idea that we should find activities, which may include paid work, that challenge, engage, and fulfill us into traditional retirement age and beyond. Being paid for these activities can have a second benefit, creating a mindset of abundance, rather than one of scarcity. That sense of scarcity is common amongst those who are natural savers and need to spend from a portfolio.

At the same time, I can’t imagine being so consumed by my work that I would want to continue to put in the type of work schedule that this reader maintains into his 70’s. I specifically did not want my life to revolve around work in my 40’s. I have a young child, my health, and a number of things outside my original career I want to explore and accomplish.

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It’s Not All or None

 

Often, we get caught up in the notion of working as hard as we can and saving as much as we can to retire as soon as we can. Then we get to our goal, and realize that it is not what we were hoping for.

This reader’s point about the grass not always being greener is spot on. I thank him for calling out this fallacy and challenging readers pursuing the fastest path to FIRE.

I also agree “you don’t need to retire to be happy.” The idea that retirement will make you happy is another fallacy that needs to be debunked.

However, I’m not sure how many people can reach the state of “Ikigai” that this reader ascribes to. It is especially rare to find this type of work at a young age and do it your whole life. For most, this creates unrealistic expectations of a job.Retiring early from a career that pays well but does not fulfill you does not mean you have to retire fully from all paid work for the remainder of your life. Maybe it allows you to shift to more meaningful but lower paid or even unpaid work. You could also continue your current work at a more sustainable pace (part-time, sabbaticals, etc.). Decisions can look different when not driven by the need for more money.

 

Redefining Retirement

 

Many people can find a happy middle ground between the dichotomy of retiring as early as possible OR having your life revolve around work into your 70’s and beyond. But it requires thinking outside of the box.

That box you’re stuck in may be the standard thinking of consumerism, achievement, and/or never having enough. Or it may be the box of FIRE thinking that says we need to save and invest every dollar to retire as soon as possible.

Either can be a trap. It is easy to wake up one day and realize life has passed you by. I hope this blog serves as a frequent reminder to not let that happen.

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17 thoughts on “Why You Should Never Retire”

  1. I like the FIRO idea as well as a quote from Frederick Buechner: “The place God calls you to be is where your greatest joy and the world’s greatest hunger meet.” Like the Japanese ikigai. For me, that’s practicing medicine on refugees in the US, and people in resource-poor countries overseas on mission trips. To pay the dues to stay licensed and because I enjoy it, I do some work locum tenens in rural healthcare facilities. I can no longer practice medicine on refugees because I lost my clinic job doing it (interpreters cost the health care system too much), but I help them learn English and math and can talk to them about their health. No plans to change over at least the next several years.

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  3. Hey Thad and Retired Army Fed, I have to kind of agree with you. this dude said he reached Ikigai- I am F-ing jealous!!! I want to reach Ikigai!!! but somehow between delivering bad news to parents regarding their 23 year old is close to brain dead and they have to decide to pull the plug or not because they have an oculocephalic reflex so technically not brain dead and coming home that day to my 7 year old hitting my daughter and giving a bloody nose that now has left a permanent stain on the carpet, I feel currently that I will never reach Ikigai but then again we as humans have a rosy retrospection that with time our minds fool us into thinking that our memories are rosier than they actually are. Hopefully when I reach this writer’s age I will feel the same way about my job, my kids, and my life. Given that the writer is 70+ years old, I believe they are falling into this rosy retrospection bias of the brain. But hey man, awesome if you are!!! If a tree fall in the forest . . .

    I hope that these terrible memories I have as a neurologist and as a father get swept under the rug of rosy retrospection. But I have to say my pursuit of coast FIRE will likely make that more possible. If I had to stay in my job as a neurologist to support an inflated lifestyle and spend less time with my kids who end up giving each other more bloody noses b/c I’m an absentee parent while working to support said inflated lifestyle, I won’t attain even a rosy retrospective Ikigai. I am superjealous of this writer as I myself will have to focus on FIRE to reach their level of happiness.

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  4. This is a very thought-provoking article and comments, and I appreciate the reader’s willingness to share his experiences. But maybe others saw this conflicting statement, buried about 2/3 of the way into the article: My family is my highest priority. I wish they lived closer.

    I would argue that if the correspondent’s highest priority were really his family, he would move closer to at least some of them to be able to spend more time with them while he and his wife still can. If relocation is not a possibility (a rift in the family, work obligations), then I would suggest that his family is not, in fact, his highest priority.

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  5. happy horse $h17; no disrespect. there is no better life than being free of anyone telling you anything you need to do.

    that said; I do agree if you are passionate in your field and feel full filled – fine…

    I would argu that living is more important.. but this post makes me think …. I’m conflicted

    Steve (NWOutlier)

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  6. I guess I grew up with retirement as the goal after the career, and can’t seem to get on board with the work til I die philosophy.
    I am not 70 and don’t want to work 60 hour weeks. I’m good at my job and have learned what to do, what to delegate and what to let go. (or I try.)
    I sometimes question folks working into their 70s… For some it seems to keep them sharp, and then there are plenty of folks with cognitive decline in their 70s who aren’t able to keep working and shouldn’t. I hope the ‘die hards’ realize how fortunate they are.
    The industry I work in often the path to advancement is someone else leaving to open a position… be it by promotion, retirement or changing companies. The older generation thinks we like changing jobs every few years. Some forget by working into their 70s, when they have financial independence may be doing a disservice. There are ways to consult, mentor, stay in the industry and provide many of the benefits listed in the post.

    If this guy finds it fun, keeps him off the streets, it’s his life to live or rather work.
    It just isn’t my choice.

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  7. I understand, but pass the torch; share your knowledge; move out – not disrespectful – just move the needle on the future gens… I am 54.. 55 this year… hating that I’m no longer accepted in tech… my guess is med is similar, maybe not as abrasive as tech.

    what you’re doing is minimal to what you can impact… my opinion only – not discounting your passion.. but teach… be ready…. pass it on.

    Steve (NWOutlier)

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  8. Reaching Financial Independence is one thing. Retiring is another thing. You can do whatever you want once you’ve reached FI.
    I know of an attorney, in his 70’s, who’s still the managing partner at a law firm. He’s got more money than God.
    I know of another business owner, also in his 70’s, who started his own investment firm a long time ago and still happily running it.
    To them, it’s FIRO…Financial Independence, Retire Optional.

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  9. I can honestly identify with parts of this situation. I do find fulfillment in my work, some identity, purpose, get to mentor younger docs, socialize with other professionals with shared experiences. I also find that outside of work and there is a much better balance for me working part-time. If you had asked me five years ago, when I was working way more than full-time, what I wanted, I would be retired now. However, I am very securely FI in the second half of my 40s and I can see myself working like this for a long time. I have also spent insane amounts of money per year and now spend much less (on purpose). It is not scarcity, just being excessive doesn’t really make me happier and honestly makes me a bit uncomfortable. Travel is no different. Done the luxury resorts etc. We prefer camping and motorhome travel. I can’t see myself working like him in my 70s but I have also learned to respect the fact I have no idea what opportunities will present themselves or how I will think that far into the future.
    -LD

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  11. He probably doesn’t work in 100% clinical medicine. I can imagine some jobs that are so fun people don’t want to retire from but not many involve seeing patients at 2 am.

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  12. Seems like those disagreeing with him are missing a couple of key points in his description – 1) he is doing original, creative things on the job so he is having fun and is not bored 2) he is mentoring the young people so he is meeting and interacting with different ages which can keep him young at heart 3) he is a “rock star” in his industry so he gets recognition and validation 4) he is staying healthy. 5) He has family and friends that he does things with so he has a fulfilling social life. 6) He is a FI – so he can choose what makes him happy.

    He is having a blast at what he does – and who says that “fun” can only be non-work related. He gets to spend time outdoors when he wants, has family and friends to hang out with. Can spend money as he desires. – What is not to love and enjoy?
    And travel is not the be all – been all over the world for over 50% of my life – not fun anymore – would much rather spend time with family and friends and get to sleep in my own bed.

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  13. As long as he’s happy, who cares? It doesn’t appear that he’s hurting anybody, which is a lot more than so many people can say who spend their time drinking, doing drugs, cheating, or generally neglecting their families. He prioritizes work, family and his health. I would probably be bored and want to try different things, but more power to him if he isn’t. I see myself going down to 80% FTE in my late 40s, 60% around age 50, and 50% in the second half of my 50s so that I can do other things that interest me, but that’s just me. Most physicians don’t have physically demanding jobs and can easily practice into their 70s if they want to do that.

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  14. I’d add that this reader has a bit of survivor bias.

    Not everyone is healthy (or fortunate enough) enough to do what he is doing at 70.

    Agree with Thads thoughts, travel is (to me) way more than asking “where the bathroom is” in a different language.

    That being said, purpose is important but I’ve learned first hand that your work shouldn’t be your ENTIRE identity.

    Regards,

    Psy-FI MD

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  15. A recurring rejoinder in the FIRE movement is to reach FI, and then you can RE or do whatever else your heart desires. If this gentleman likes working and wants to do it indefinitely, good for him and I wish him well. But for many physicians, especially those in surgical specialties, there is a physical and then cognitive end point for working. There have been several times in my career where the hospital system and peer review boards had to remove the privileges of an aging surgeon who had become unsafe but would not hang it up by his own volition. And there are stories too of physicians in their 80’s who are still seeing patients but their partners must check over their charts as things get missed. This writer echoes what I’ve heard others say–that he would probably die in a few months if he retired. At some point, especially in medicine, retirement is a physical necessity. A person will still need meaning and purpose in life, however. So as much as you love working, still, try to find something to fall back on and fill your days when the time comes.

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  16. If the conditions of your work generate a sense of purpose and well being without a physical or mental/emotional toll, it is wise to continue. With vacations every six weeks, and occasional longer sabbaticals as was mentioned in the article; you’re in the sweet spot. I remember the phrase, through the mists of time; “retire in practice”. It is a middle way.

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    • I dont judge, but concur with Thad. Happy that it is working out for this person, but there is so much more to experience and learn in life. Maybe the author is in a comfort zone and is reluctant to try new things.

      Reply

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