The Meaning from Work Can Make Early Retirement Tricky

In my own research to better understand personal finances and create financial models to solve for my own needs, I came across the Financial Independence, Retire Early (FIRE) movement within Reddit. As far as I can tell, the main idea is to maximize savings early on in life, get into the habit of thriftiness—ideally, while continuing to progress in one’s career so paychecks still get bigger—until the accumulated savings plus investment returns allow for retirement before the expected ages in one’s 60s.

Of course, people have dreamt of exiting the rat race for a long time; what makes FIRE different is that it originated from young professionals who were also interested in the mechanics of how the finances would play out, taking into account stock market gains and spending tweaks applicable to middle and upper-middle class lifestyles. And while there’s still plenty of proselytizing on happiness without money, the plans are backed by actual financial models.

Anyway, I came across this post on someone who’s ready for FIRE, but is finding it more difficult than expected to truly let go and retire:

FIRE: I’m ready now at 49. But very difficult to walk away from strong salary and benefits.

The follow-on comments are mostly in awe of the author’s salary and savings, and encouraging them to equivocate early retirement with freedom from crappy bosses and stress and all the downsides of modern professional work.

Here’s the problem: we have ascribed a level of identity and meaning to our work beyond just the money the job provides. In fact, there’s plenty of headlines that emphasize the importance of purpose to workplace cultures and potential jobs, pinned to the same youthful segment of the population—i.e., the “millennials”—that is most attracted to FIRE1. The anxieties that more traditional retirees face also exist for the early retired, in some cases more amplified due to its rarity and timing (e.g., all your friends are working on the weekdays).

But beyond that common issue, one aspect that’s seemingly lost on FIRE advocates is that all those aforementioned downsides are sometimes critical to what makes work thus far challenging and meaningful. In the thread, the author mentions that they’re bringing in upwards of $400k, and anybody who has made it that far in their careers will have learned to both manage its demands but also reaped the benefits of title and status. It’s doubtful they can just “go home early” or “say no”, like an hourly temp worker would be able to, and keep their effectiveness in their high-level roles.

This also gets at the paradox of increasing the amount we work despite advancing efficiencies and qualities of life. At levels mid-career and later, jobs become increasingly more self-driven than explicitly assigned, and solving complex, fuzzily-defined problems turns into a primary motivator alongside compensation. It’s not about punching in hours or even taking on less responsibilities, but being effective in a role which can entail the extra time and effort and stress.

Lest I sound too much like a corporate tool, I acknowledge that there are plenty of employees in the rat race who ground their way up the career ladder only to wish for it to be all over; the late Paul Allen recognized that his work at Microsoft didn’t matter as much as his happiness, health, and time with family. For these folks, FIRE is a reasonable remedy, a goal and lifestyle that’s wholly satisfying. But, for others whose career ambitions and drive got them to be in a position for early retirement, there is a tricky—admittedly quite first-world—trade-off with some nuance and depth.

  1. I also recognize that being able to find and get meaningful work is itself a privilege and not universally accessible.

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