If you listen to the internet (which, I cannot stress enough, is something you should never do), there are a few things that are greater than whatever this generation’s sliced bread is. FaceTime? (My MacBook did that edit automatically, because Steve Jobs lives inside. Oh, you actually believed he’s dead? His body is dead, but his mind is very much alive.) Taking crappy pictures of your food? Selfies? I assume the kids all like these things.
Traveling the world is probably tops on that list, because travel has become the new thing the bourgeoisie lusts over. If you need any reminder of that, just check your Facebook timeline. Oh hey, Jim hasn’t posted in months and suddenly you see his pictures from Hawaii? HOW INTERESTING. But Jim totally isn’t bragging.
These same people will often own a MacBook or an iPhone, regaling you with the kind of zeal that’s usually reserved for the newly religious about how paying $500 more for a laptop is somehow the frugal choice because it might last slightly longer. I can’t judge these people too strongly, because during times of weakness I became just as insufferable.
The current trend circling the personal finance world is that of early retirement. Why work until we’re old, the refrain goes, when you can duck out of the workforce at 35 and MAKE A DIFFERENCE by hanging out with your kids all day until they turn 14 and tell you to GO AWAY FOREVER DAD YOU’RE SO ANNOYING GOD.
I don’t even have kids and I’m already looking forward to when my kids are too cool to hang out with me. Oh, I don’t have to hang out when you go bowling? Excellent. Now I can watch real athletes.
I’ve tackled the subject of early retirement before, stating that I don’t really get it. Firstly, their definition of early retirement is largely made up. The literal definition of retirement is when you don’t work any longer, at least according to any dictionary I’ve ever read. And I read several daily, just for fun. But according to the early retirement folks, “retirement” really just means becoming moderately wealthy and then quitting your job to do whatever the hell you want. Most of the time, that actually includes another job that just pays a whole lot less.
There’s nothing wrong with taking a job that requires less time so you can spend more time doing whatever. But back in my day, we called that taking a pay cut. These people transition from regular employment to a form of self-employment that they enjoy, and then call themselves retired.
They’re not, of course. I’ve struggled with a term for what they’re doing for years now, and now I have it.
They’re selfishly employed.
As far as I can tell, selfish employment is the brainchild of a guy named Jeff Yeager, who decided after accumulating a bunch of capital that he just wanted to do his own thing. So he launched a business that taught people how to be really cheap and grew a bitchin’ mustache in the process. And good for him. What’s the point with having money if you can’t use it selfishly?
(And what’s the deal with early retirement guys having mustaches?)
But Nelson, why do you care so much? Why can’t we just call it early retirement and just ignore what these guys do after they tell their boss to kiss the hairiest part of their ass? Why go as far as calling it selfish employment?
While I’ll admit arguing about the definition of retirement is the very epitome of first world problems, my beef is simple. By hijacking the word, these people are selling a dream that all you need to do is save your ass off for a decade and you can have financial freedom for the rest of your life. That’s a dangerous thing, for a couple of reasons.
First off, it’s really easy to look at the stock market over the last few years and assume we’ll get 10% forever. It’s easy to project a world where you can make it when the market goes up consistently. But what about periods of years where the market is flat or even down, like between 2000-2010? The S&P 500 lost 18% between March of 2000 and March of 2010. Telling people a $500k nest egg will last for decades is a dangerous assumption, especially during multi-year highs in the market.
Secondly, I question the wisdom of removing people who are smart and dedicated enough to save half a mil in a decade from the workforce. If you have the earnings power and dedication to save that much, I’m going to assume you’re smarter than the average bear. You owe it to your fellow man to keep building things.
I remember when my grandmother died and my mom was talking about her life. “Grandma,” said my mom, “had a good life. She had kids, grandkids, got to travel to a bunch of places…” her voice trailed off. That was pretty much all she did.
Times were different when she was young, of course. She had jobs throughout the years, but mostly just dedicated herself to her family. That’s not to disparage her for doing so, because I have many, many fun memories of time at my grandparents’ house.
But imagine being smart and ambitious enough to actually do things that matter, even if it’s just in your mind. But instead, you wrap it up at 35, content to hang out, work on your handicap, and make sure your kids don’t become juvenile delinquents, apparently without realizing that, chances are, they won’t end up that way even if you do go to work. 50 years later when you kick it, all your family really remembers is you being around, not really doing a whole lot.
Does that motivate you? If it does, what the hell is wrong with you?
I will never discourage anybody on a quest to become financially free. All things staying equal, living life with money trumps living without it. But being financially free is not a valid excuse to hang up your skates and do nothing.
Besides, here’s what you see every time. Somebody works really hard, “retires”, and is back tackling big projects within a year or two. It happened to me, that’s for sure. Hell, I lasted about three months of being retired before I transitioned back to full-time work.
Embrace taking breaks. Embrace selfish employment. But saving your ass off for a decade just to live like you’re poor for the next five? No thanks. Work is something to be embraced, not avoided.