It’s been a bit of a slug-fest at work. These last few weeks have brought on a heavy dose of 11th-hour drama that’s quite typical in the world of software delivery at large corporations. Sweating out another Sunday night has me wondering how to get retirement right: Should I reconsider ditching the cube early and explore the alternatives to retirement?
When you get close to the finish line of a project at work and the customer decides “This isn’t what I wanted”, all of a sudden, collegiality flies out the window. Emotions take over. In my case, being a leader means I wind up defending my team more than I should have to. They’re simply doing their jobs.
Being a mediator can feel bring on some serious stress. I can feel my blood pressure rising on those conference calls. That’s when I remember that it’s okay to want to retire early. This post will explore the pros and cons of early retirement. Are there merits to leaving the rat race, or does a meaningful career support a purpose-driven life?
What If You Never Retired?
On a typical evening, we put the kids to bed around 8 o’clock. Exhausted from a long day of work and chores, we spend the next couple of hours watching Netflix or YouTube clips from the comforts of our sofa. What could be better? How about a documentary featuring a never retire philosophy??
After Mrs. Cubert hit the hay, I stayed up to watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi on Netflix. Believe it or not, I came away from that screening with the crazy notion that I should never retire.
In the film, Jiro, an 85-year-old sushi chef and restaurant owner in Tokyo, Japan, shares his secrets to delivering a consistently excellent product over seven decades. He’s a firm believer in perfecting one’s craft to the utmost. He feels it is an obligation to love his work.
Jiro’s life is a case study in how consistent, repetitive execution with small tweaks here and there can lead to mastery and success.
“Once you decide on your occupation,” says Jiro, “you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success and is the key to being regarded honorably.”
It’s easy to see why Jiro still works as hard as he does (even now, approaching age 90), from 5 AM to 10 PM each day, repeating many of the same tasks day over day. Simply, he is devoted to his craft. Through endless execution, his craft has come to define who Jiro is. If Jiro were to retire, he’d be, “bored to death.”
I came away from this documentary with a new perspective on work and retirement. Is it taking the easy way out to retire early? Am I simply giving up? Why can’t I be like Jiro, and devote myself to project management and continue to master my craft?
I don’t know the answers to those questions right now. I hope the answers emerge over the next three years, at which point I become eligible to bolt.
Seek Struggle and Resilience, Not a Job You Love
Jiro never suggests that you need to find a job you love. Fact is, he struggled mightily in the beginning, and it took many years for him to achieve a level of success we would define as “making it.” Persistence and resilience are a big part of what got Jiro from a place of hardship to a place of great reward.
Now, despite all of the toil and repetition, there are subtle aspects of the sushi chef gig that make it rewarding work. If you’re looking for a Blue-Zones case study on healthy longevity, look no further than Jiro:
- You’re on your feet all day, and you’re in constant motion. This is HUGE for folks looking to live a long time in good health
- You get to sample the goods. Jiro and his staff ensure quality control by tasting the sushi throughout the day, to avoid putting a bad product in front of customers. In the process, Jiro is consuming some very healthy and very anti-inflammatory seafood, while avoiding junk food.
- You get instant gratification. Jiro’s customers respectfully gush over the extraordinarily simple and flavorful bites put in front of them. Putting forth your best effort (and seeing the results) builds great pride in your work.
- You establish long-term friendships. From the vendors at the fish market to the rice-dealer, and even the restaurant critics… They’ve all bonded with Jiro. And also, of course, have his two sons, even after working under his harsh tutelage for many years.
Why You May Decide to Retire Early
- I want more time with my kids. Jiro admits that he wasn’t a good father, mainly because he simply wasn’t around when his sons were growing up. He was that dedicated to his craft, and by the necessity of poverty, he had to be. Fortunately, he was able to bond with his sons once they were old enough to work as apprentices in his restaurant. Still, I know I would have major regrets missing out on being “Daddy”.
- My job is killing me. Traditional desk jobs keep butts in seats all day long. It’s no content when compared to the physical activity of being a sushi chef. Stand-up workstations only get you marginal results. You need to be in motion. If only I could get over the reluctance to do body-weight squats in my cube.
- My boss is an a-hole. Even Jiro had some iffy bosses early in his career, and he reflects on some pretty rough early-career discipline (face slaps!) with cheerful stoicism. Maybe that’s because he is the boss now, and he can implement his vision as he sees fit. Just remember to duck when those five fingers come at ya…
There is a middle ground between the hamster wheel of cubicle life and hanging it up entirely. If I can find work that’s in-line with both of the lists above, I’ll have hit the jackpot.
Is the Never Retire Philosophy Right for You?
Maybe it’s simply managing the rental properties? In that case, I’d have to hope for enough maintenance projects to keep myself “in motion” for a good amount of the time. Ideally, your rental portfolio is passive, with the occasional elbow grease involved.
Where do I stand with this philosophy today? I still plan to keep my early retirement goal, but I’ll certainly be mulling over Jiro and his very stoic approach to work. He is a throw-back who would surely laugh off the notion of early retirement. He uses the word “honorable” to describe work. You’ve got to respect that.
Whether or not his attitude towards work would play out any different if he were a lawyer or a janitor, who knows? One thing I do know: I’m craving some good sushi.
An earlier post from LifeHacker.com does a very nice job of posing these and similar questions. It’s worth checking out. Let’s face it. Work doesn’t always suck.
That said, 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. 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 workdays, 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 the fresh air.
Looking back over my career, which spans a healthy 23 years, I understand better what makes a working life a tolerable one. Let’s dig even deeper into whether there are worthwhile alternatives to early retirement.
More Vacation Time Plus Experience Equals Reduced Work Stress
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 cubicle and an office. The only advantage of 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 sh*t is tolerable, and even marginally satisfying.
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 the Call of Duty 13. What’s a corporate stiff to do??
The Importance of Time Away From Work
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 armpits 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 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 into 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 are 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 reserve for vacation. All because of the glory of VPN and high-speed internet. Ask me if I check into work while on vacation…
Alternatives to Early Retirement #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 truckload 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 workweek 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 despise long commutes.
As for me? I’m feeling a bit of 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.
Alternatives to Early Retirement #2: SemiFIRE
This is where virtually 100% of the FIRE blogging community resides. Many early retirees 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 SemiFIRE. (And for those who prefer to only work during part of the year, while enjoying the free-time during the rest, there’s SeasonalFIRE.)
Other so-called early retirees don’t just write a 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.
SemiFIRE is nothing more than trading your working energy from the cubicle monotony, to something you have more passion about. It’s still working 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 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 “SemiFIRE” 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-retirement:
- 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. sh*t 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 “SemiFIRE”. Look at Cubert, doing a complete 180 from that wacky post he delivered back in March. Flip-flop!
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 the only option left to us…
Consider some other examples. I’ve written about Jiro above. The 90-something wonder from Japan who 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 the perfection of an ancient craft as his art form and passing that craft down to his sons.
You just read about the early retirement connection with Blue Zones’ longevity. 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 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 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.
Early retirement is rarely looked at as anything other than a glorious achievement. You’ve made it. You put in the time, toil, and effort, and voila! It’s finished. Time to soak up the sun and kick back, maybe read a book or two, go for a bike ride, see the world… You know, fulfill Maslow’s Hierarchy of early retirement needs?
Some might suggest that once you’ve reached this pinnacle of no longer being bound to a cubicle, there’s little else you need to feel fulfilled. Think about it. You’ve got the resources to feed yourself, clothe yourself, and keep a roof over your head. Arguably, you’ve made some friends along the way, and maybe you have a partner to enjoy life’s twists and turns with.
As I approach the stage of my career where I could take it or leave it, these are the kind of thoughts that occupy my mind. Sometimes the pressure and stress of work get me daydreaming about quitting. And other times, when I feel a little appreciation and camaraderie, I think to myself that a career can be rewarding too.
Let’s explore whether early retirement creates its hierarchy of new needs. Needs that might leave us longing for something else, even after we’ve reached that magical “finish line”.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Early Retirement Needs
Look a little further below at the original Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If you’ve retired early, then certainly the Feeling of Accomplishment has been met (assuming hanging up the “career spurs and saddle” mean anything to you). For most, at the moment of early retirement, you’ve likely found love and maybe even have a kid or two (or three, or more).
There could be some random things on your list of “big things to accomplish”, like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or running a marathon. Maybe you want to write a book?
Regardless, you’ve met some key milestones in life by the time early retirement rolls around. The degrees on your wall, the stamps in your passport, and the time you’ve given to help others – all boost esteem to some extent.
Self-actualization is the trickiest of all. I’d wager it’s a small percentage of people who spend the amount of energy they’d like in the peak of Maslow’s pyramid. I for one would consider myself fortunate to have lived a life where I had the wherewithal to worry about my esteem/accomplishments. Sadly, for too many on this planet, just meeting basic needs like food, water, rest, and security is a never-ending quest.
Abraham Maslow’s original intent back in 1943 was to illustrate a successive climb up a ladder of ever-changing needs. The assumption then was that you fully attain a level before moving up to the next, and so on.
Reality is more complicated, and Maslow eventually admitted that it’s natural for one to move up and down the pyramid as circumstances change. Wars, famine, and disaster can all bring us down to the needs we had come to take for granted.
Alternative Retirement Lifestyles
Interesting question right there. For this, we’ll focus on the top three levels of the pyramid, since it’s assumed that having F-You money means you’ve got your Physiological and Safety needs met. We’ll come back to this since people fret about whether they’ve saved enough to call it quits early.
To chew on:
- When you retire early, are you freeing up time for relationships that matter the most? Whether it’s your spouse, your kids, other relatives, or friends? Or, is early retirement mutually exclusive of fulfilling the Love/Belonging level of the pyramid?
- When you retire early, have you achieved the goals you’d set out for yourself (Esteem level)? Or, does early retirement allow you the time and energy to finally start that small business, write the book, or train for that half marathon? On the flip, are you giving up the income you think you’ll need to achieve certain goals?
- And for the biggie – Self-actualization: Does early retirement allow you the time and energy to achieve your full potential? Another way to ask this question is this: Does your day job get in the way of letting you become the person you want to be??
It feels to me that on the surface at least, early retirement would certainly free up time and energy for pursuits we often let languish. Given time, we might get to travel with intent — i.e., visit a place for more than a week or two.
Given even more time, we could train for that marathon or practice tennis serves that lands in the box. (The latter is something I managed to do during the year I was laid off.)
Back to chewable question number 1, we financial bloggers have quite a community. Many will venture off to FinCon every year, or, some of the many regional retreats/camps of like-minded souls. Friendships and real community bonds (a “tribe” if you will) continue to grow in our space.
So from a belonging standpoint, early retirement is becoming less of a rarity. It’s no longer the case that you’re the only one taking a walk around the block at 10 AM while everyone else you know is toiling away at the office…
Having put these thoughts down, I’m wondering now if early retirement is merely a manifestation of Maslow’s Hierarchy or an enabler of it? Or both? It truly depends on the person. In my journey, I’ve come across many examples of self-actualized people who never retire. So maybe, just maybe, retirement has nothing to do with it?
Cubert’s Maslow’s Hierarchy of Early Retirement Needs
Let’s assume that regardless of how you feel about early retirement and all the promises it holds, you take the plunge. What does your pyramid look like now? Have you truly elevated yourself up a level, or simply replaced old needs with new ones? Or more troubling, have you not changed your situation at all, or made it worse, unintentionally backsliding a level (or two)?
Okay. Okay. This is, granted, a Fisher-Price version of the classic Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but it’s MY pyramid, and I’m sticking with it. We’re going to take a leap of faith that early retirement presents a separate set of needs after financial independence goals have been met.
Starting from the bottom and working our way up… The Money part? Well, that should be obvious. In early retirement, we’re now consumed with the ever-present question of whether we’ve squirreled away enough money to last until our end. If money continues to haunt you after dropping out of the rat race, you probably shouldn’t have dropped out.
On the other hand, if you’ve established lucrative side hustles and have stashed a significant amount of coin away, then the Money part is an easier rung to climb. The Health equation comes next. Healthcare is not a public good. Far from it. Better to have your insurance coverage figured out and better yet, have some healthy habits to keep you humming along. Now, go pick up a copy of Blue Zones and call me in the morning.
In all seriousness, the “Health rung” of Cubert’s mighty pyramid is where early retirement starts to yield some real promise. You’ve cleared the money hurdle, now you have an opportunity to make hay with all that time and newfound energy. The time is NOW to start hitting that home gym, hopping on the bicycle, and turning your day-to-day life into one of sheer physical exhaustion. You’ll never sleep better.
Relationships can now be cultivated with a mind and body at peace. You’re able to give more of yourself with newfound time and energy. There are books to read and mentors to build your wisdom. THIS is the hardest rung of the ladder because it’s filled with riddles. BUT it is also the most rewarding.
Once you get your shit together with money and health, make Relationships your singular focus. Without proper “care and feeding” in this arena, regrets begin to emerge later on…
Early Retirement “Icing on the Cake”
Most of us would be pretty satisfied with meeting money, health, and relationship needs in early retirement. After that? Well, there’s always more to be desired. In an age of travel with relative ease, Mobility is an understandable “need”.
We had a whipsaw blizzard just come through Minnesota this past week. And it reminded me (as spring often does) how much location plays a role in my yearnings and present state of wistfulness. The freedom to move and travel are luxuries.
Sure, many with means can move or are forced to move for work, but it takes added money and time to travel on a whim or set up seasonal homes. Mobility for me is in constant competition with Relationships (and I haven’t even retired early!)
Time will tell, but I’d bet that we’ll keep Minneapolis in the mix, as it’s a location with decent roots established. But I can guarantee the winters will be spent elsewhere. Arizona, Nevada, Florida, anywhere but here. Mobility is a luxury, but until I’ve mastered the basic tenets of Buddhism, I’ll continue to piss and moan about snow in April.
The final layer of icing is having a purpose. Get to this rung and you’re in a supreme position to give more of your time, energy, and resources to others in need. IF you’re less of a whiner than me, you might achieve mobility, but choose to stay put and devote even more energy to relationships and good causes.
Ultimately, you’ve found peace: Peace with your decision to leave the workforce, peace with others, and peace with your situation and limitations. And in that peace, you’re able to reflect and feel not an ounce of regret because of the work you’ve done to prepare yourself, and the investments you’ve made in relationships that matter.
Get Retirement Right: Summing It All Up
It’s entirely possible to work for several decades and still achieve Cubert’s Maslow’s Hierarchy. Entrepreneurs and high achievers with a passion and dedication to their craft just might find the balance they and their orbits require to meet the pyramid’s pinnacle.
The nut to crack for most of us is this: Careers are not easy to navigate over the long term. At most points, it’s a challenge. And it’s a further challenge to somehow balance the hierarchy of needs when so much of your time and energy are locked up in your career hamster wheel. 32-hour workweek, anyone??
The punchline? Whether or not you work a cubicle job, -a- hierarchy of needs will still be there. The question always comes back to this: Does early retirement help you transcend a level, or does it simply create an entirely new set of needs you hadn’t anticipated?
Maybe at work tomorrow you’ll find time to have coffee with a colleague/friend you haven’t talked to in a while. And you’ll ride your bike to work?
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?
Please share your alternatives to get retirement right in the comments below!