Why Early Retirement is the wrong idea

I’ve mentioned before (in my inaugural post) that I started writing articles here partly because so many early retirement enthusiasts, both bloggers and commenters, are focused on permanently ceasing work at the earliest possible moment. (Or at least that’s the impression you’d get if you read early retirement blogs for a few hours – I’m sure there are many exceptions, and I know Mr Money Mustache still values hard work.)

What’s wrong with hanging out to hang up tools?

Well, there are much worse things than wanting to retire early, but I believe that work has value intrinsically – that it’s a good thing for humans to do. A person who loafs through life – and there are plenty of people who do, ‘retired’ and otherwise – is cheating themselves of the enormous satisfaction that comes with productivity. If by mastering the Voluntary Worker’s formula a person manages to free themselves of the burden of having to work, that’s great. But I think that person is probably making a mistake if they immediately and permanently stop working. Confusing? I hope not – read this if it is!

A quick aside: There may well be a scary lesson lurking in conventional retirement, too. How about this for a super-scary paper title? Links Between Early Retirement and Mortality Please note that I have NOT bothered reading the paper, as it does not apply to my life and I am not concerned with creating a scientific argument for Voluntary Work. If you are interested, though, you might like to look at this, this and this, and make up your own mind. For what it’s worth, I don’t find any of the results convincing enough to bother considering in making this kind of decision. However, I believe that some questions just aren’t amenable to empirical study, and I certainly believe that some people retire and go dramatically downhill as a consequence. What we should all be thinking about is how to thrive once we do stop work, of course, whether early or ‘late’. Any study of this sort will include people who stop work early and thrive, and people who thrive working until late old age.

From some perspectives it might sound like I’m splitting hairs, but I think the ‘Early Retirement’ buzz phrase is a little unfortunate. Of course, the idea of retiring gets people excited, and the idea of retiring in one’s thirties sounds like heaven to most – so the buzz phrase gets attention. I’m pleased that there are people writing about early retirement, because it’s getting out the message that it’s not compulsory to take on debt to drive a fancy car, that houses are still houses under 2500 square feet, and that you’re not defined by the brand of toothpaste you buy. But I think the focus on ‘making work voluntary’ is preferable (obviously. I have a blog called The Voluntary Worker. Ahem…)

Readers might have come across the concept of ‘Get out of my face money’ (OK, I’m sanitising this – use your imagination) – the idea that having a stash of cash gives options in the workplace e.g. if the boss is just too unpleasant about your TPS reports, you can quit and live off your $10,000 emergency fund for a couple of months (given the rate at which most people burn through cash, that’s probably not too far off!) It’s a start, but the Voluntary Worker has taken it to the point where it’s really powerful – any time, for any reason they see fit, the Voluntary Worker can cease working. For as long as they like.

I will expand on these points in coming articles, as I don’t think the significance of what I’m saying is easy to get from a single reading. Not that it’s profound, but it’s very different from the default work-til-you-are-at-least-65-because-you-have-to option, and from the buzz about early retirement. And to be a Voluntary Worker without making or inheriting very large amounts of money, you have to pay close attention to the direction you’re headed, so the details and nuances take on some importance.

I’ll finish with an observation about early retirement followers. Authors and commenters are sometimes leaped upon (figuratively, by way of comments only as far as I am aware!) by would-be or already-are early retirees when work is mentioned, with comments along the lines of ‘Aha, you’re not truly retired! What is this, I thought you said this was an early retirement blog!!’ And at one point (before I properly got my head around the beauty of Voluntary Work, of course, and realised work is something to feel great about) I was composing a comment myself and noticed that I felt self-conscious about mentioning that I still work. That got me thinking that there was something not quite right with the picture. ‘What is wrong with voluntary work?’, I thought. And two capital letters later, I dubbed myself a Voluntary Worker.


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