Supposedly, I’m within ten months of early retirement. Is that exciting? Sure it is! Do I have a clue what my “day-in-the-life” will be when I quit the cubicle? Sorta. But if nothing else at this stage of the journey, I’m fighting some cold feet. Keen to learn about the alternatives to early retirement.
Let’s face it. Work doesn’t always suck. Work sure as heck is a lot harder if you’re extremely incompetent, hard to get along with, or wilt faster than a daisy at high noon in pressure situations. And all that aside, we can agree that cubicle work sure as hell beats begging for food on the streets, or even watching TV all day.
Then there are times when even the best of us reach our breaking points. Weekends and long work days, soggy stop-and-go rush hour commutes, and bosses who just don’t get it. We’ve been there, done that too. It could be you’re stuck inside those four walls during one of the few beautiful weather days of the year in the polar Midwest, when you simply want to be outside appreciating fresh air.
Looking back over my career, which spans a healthy 23 years, I understand better what makes a working life a tolerable one. The question is whether there are better alternatives to early retirement…?
Cubert’s Work Satisfaction Fancy Infographic (TM)
Earth-shattering stuff! It’s not a reach to argue that the longer you work and the more you mature, the easier this work nonsense gets. But “Playing the Game” well comes with a hefty price: Years upon years in a cubicle or office. (I’ve split time between both a cube and an office. The only advantage to an office is the ability to pass gas without anyone noticing. Until a colleague pops-in unexpectedly…)
At any rate, if you’ve figured out how to work with difficult people, and you’ve figured out how to avoid really difficult people, most jobs can be tolerable. Sometimes, you might even enjoy the chase. Maybe you get to design and create? Maybe you get to marshall teams, and support them to the finish line of a big project? Sometimes that shit is quite tolerable, and satisfying after all?
So that’s the top-left box: Medium Stress. You know the game and can play it well. You even get promoted from time to time, and land a few good bosses along the way. Work friends are cool cats, and happy hours here and there build camaraderie.
But you still feel penned-in by it all. There’s never enough time to enjoy your family, the outdoors, and Call of Duty 13. What’s a corporate stiff to do??
The Importance of Time Off
I’m fortunate. The company I work for gives employees almost a month of PTO per year. If you don’t need to use those days for sick days or emergencies, that’s a LOT of vacation. Out of college, I spent the first nine years of my career stuck at a measly TWO weeks of vacation. More than anything else, such a limited amount of time away from work was a soul crusher. It was the pits of the pits. The arm pits of the pits of the pits.
I suppose one hidden benefit of having just two weeks of paid time off was less time to blow money on travel. I took a grand total of three trips overseas in those nine years. You sure appreciated those trips too. With nearly a month of time off these days, I find it hard to complain. Still, I wonder if a little bit more PTO would hit a “sweet spot”, encouraging longevity in my career. We’ll explore that a little later on…
Then there’s technology. While technology has in many instances kept us plugged in to work after we leave the office, it’s also been a bit of a liberator. How many of you fine readers have worked from home while sick?
There’s two, maybe three days a year I’ll put in a half-ass day of “work” while at home suffering from a nasty cold. I’ll join a few key conference calls and respond to important emails, while feeling sorry for myself on the sofa with a bowl of chicken noodle soup. But those are PTO days I get to bank for vacation. All because of the glory of VPN and high speed internet. Ask me if I check into work while on vacation…
Early Retirement Alternative 1: Keep Working, Danish Style
For all you wusses out there who whine and complain about how awful holding a steady job is, look no further than Denmark. The happiest people on the planet can’t even fathom the concept of early retirement. Why? Because they get a shitload of time off from work (among many other social benefits).
And check this nonsense out, FIRE Team: The Danes are up for more work, even into their 60s! That’s right. Even though the official retirement age is 67, many Danes had been calling it quits at 62. (Though lately that figure has crept up to 65.)
The line that I found most telling from that last linked article was this: “Many jobs have become less arduous, making it more feasible to continue into older age…”
Whoah! Less arduous?? Sign me up!
In Denmark, the average work week hovers around 40 hours. You show up at 8 or 8:30, and head home at 5 for dinner with the family. Want to know what makes the Danes just that much more willing to work, aside from reasonable hours and all that vacation? They live close to where they work (at least, many of them do*).
That’s one of the hangups from the environmentally sensitive among us. But you won’t find the crush of clown-car commuters in Denmark. Nope. That’s because the Danes ride their bikes EVERYWHERE.
It’s not all roses of course. As the economy has recovered over the last decade, the average Danish commute has crept up to *26 miles. And not surprisingly, many Danish companies are struggling to recruit talent, because the Danes absolutely despise long commutes.
As for me? I’m feeling a bit Danish about my current situation. My annual time off from work is about equivalent (though we don’t get NINE paid holidays here in the states). And my commute is a measly 10 miles, of which I bike about a third of the time.
My work week clocks in at about 43-45 hours, and that’s because I try not to waste time when I’m there. Like the Danes, I set aside no more than a half hour for lunch, but unlike the Danes, I eat lunch at my desk.
Ultimately, I have very little to complain about. Even stressful days when the craziness abounds is a cakewalk compared to many other jobs or companies I’ve experienced. Since my early retirement journey began back in 2014, I’ve managed to avoid the type of monster projects that made my work-life miserable five years ago.
Early Retirement Alternative 2: Semi-FIRE
This is where virtually 100% of the FIRE blogging community resides. There are many early retirees who simply travel the world and enjoy themselves immensely with their newfound freedom. But they are compelled to carve out time to blog about it. Blogging is a part-time (and sometimes even a full-time) commitment, aka “job”. And in many cases, it helps pay for the groceries. That’s Semi-FIRE.
Other so-called early retirees not only blog, but they create new businesses and travel extensively to preach the good word of FIRE Salvation. That’s a wonderful thing, because who wouldn’t want to trade a confining cubicle job for work so exciting? Suze Orman would approve.
Semi-FIRE is nothing more than trading your working energy from the cubicle monotony, to something you have more passion about. It’s still work, because YOU HAVE A JOB TO DO. We could play with semantics all day. But the point is we in the FIRE club have taken the traditional nature of “retirement” and reshaped it to suit our own purposes.
Example: Troy Aikman retired from the NFL (aka, “retired early”), but he picked up a side gig co-hosting televised games soon after. Sounds nice. Very “Semi-FIRE” of you, Troy. But do you think his family misses him, when he’s off to a different city for telecasts half the year? At the end of the day, we are all simply trading up jobs and calling it “early retirement”.
Now that I’ve gotten the starch out of my early retirement police op-ed, let’s review the merits of Semi-FIRE:
- You still make money. This is important, because you truly don’t know what lies ahead. The healthiest among us could be afflicted with a costly disease. A child could go astray and need substantial financial support. A parent or two could wind up needing intensive palliative care. Shit ain’t cheap. And to Suze Orman’s point, your million dollars won’t last very long when events like these unexpectedly pop-up.
- You still get benefits. You may have to work a little more than half-time to qualify, but if working 24-32 hours a week provides employer-sponsored healthcare, life and disability insurance, and even a retirement savings plan, why not? I’ll lace up the cycling shoes for four days of work or six hour shifts. Bring it on.
- You still have a routine and expanded social connections. These are the two things most traditional retirees get wistful about. For many after traditional retirement, they find there’s no driving force to get up and moving each day. No immediate purpose. And they miss interactions with colleagues, customers, etc. Granted, some of those colleagues you can do without, but the working relationships we forge are important. I frankly don’t think we put enough energy into getting to know and appreciate those we work with and spend such a substantial amount of our time with.
- The stress is much less. You’re not the one stuck with a 50 hour work week, on the hook to deliver the “big rock”. Since you’re working a part-time gig, you’re likely not in a highly-crucial, decision-making role. That means when you leave work, the work stays behind. Workplace stress can be a serious detriment to one’s health. But it doesn’t mean you have to quit cold-turkey.
- You can blog, landlord, build sheds, rear children, and still be considered “FIRE”, thanks to “Semi-FIRE”. Look at Cubert, doing a complete 180 from that wacky post he delivered back in March. Flip-flop!
Early Retirement Alternative 3: NEVER RETIRE
I can hear the groans already from the peanut gallery:
“But I want to travel the world!”
“I want my freedom!”
“Commutes are choking our lungs and polluting our lakes and streams!”
Trust me. I’m right there with you. I miss travel. I too wouldn’t mind sitting lakeside on a beautiful summer’s Tuesday. And long commutes are terrible. Not only from a safety perspective, but from an environmental one too. Our current work culture in the U.S. SUCKS. That’s probably the main point of this entire post. If we could learn how to balance work with our lives and our environment, maybe early retirement isn’t only option left to us…
Consider some other examples. I’ve written about good ol’ Jiro before. The 90-something wonder from Japan who absolutely loves his full-time work crafting sushi, on his feet, all day long. Someone give that man a Yebisu! I can guarantee he doesn’t get stuck in rush hour traffic (he takes the train) and I’m pretty sure he’s reconciled a purpose and struggle that’s meaningful to HIM. If I had to guess, I’d say his purpose has been perfection of an ancient craft as his own personal art form, and passing that craft down to his sons.
You may have read about my love affair with the Blue Zones. Those are communities across the globe where folks live extraordinarily long lives and with good health. Are they retired? Mainly, no. Able-bodied 90-somethings are off herding their sheep up and down hillsides in Sardinia. Able-bodied great-grandmothers are tending their gardens, watching over children, and preparing meals for friends and family. There are even 90-something cardiac surgeons still performing operations:
Do you think all of them are hating on life and whining about their work? Nah, probably not. And I suspect it’s because they too, like Jiro, have reconciled their struggles as a core function of their existence. There’s a gratitude embedded in what they do, and it likely stems from their ability to provide and sustain. Swirl that around and gargle for a minute.
Conclusion: Is Early Retirement the Best Alternative After All?
I’m anxious to read your answers to this question in the comments. Since my journey began four years ago, I’ve personally waffled on the question A LOT. It would appear that the happiest nations (Denmark and other Scandinavian countries) are not even aware of early retirement, and get along just fine without it. Why wouldn’t they? The longest living, healthiest among us continue to work until their time on earth is done.
Maybe the working aspect isn’t correlated to happiness and longevity with these societies. Absent work, what if they’re still happy and long-lived? The question is then, what it is that makes them so happy and healthy? And why are we so hell-bent on early retirement, if the rewards aren’t what they are so often advertised to be?