The Retirement Hoax

Ernest Hemingway once said, “retirement is the ugliest word in the English language” and I think he was right. So what exactly do we want from retirement?  Is it freedom from work?  Is it freedom to be ourselves?  Is it being wealthy (whatever that means)? I’m not really sure, but the whole concept of retirement seems like a fools errand to me.

The conventional argument for retirement goes something like this:  Work a job you hate now so that you can really live at some date in the future that’s yet to be determined.  Ignore your ambitions for meaningful and fulfilling pursuits now because you need to be saving money for later.  Diminish the quality of your life now so that you can obtain an undefined comfortable lifestyle in the future.  If all goes to plan you’ll finally be able to afford the luxury of being yourself at the ripe age of 65.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “but Greg, you’re a dreamer!” I understand that it takes money to live and I’m certainly not denying that reality.  I’m not implying that saving money is a bad idea.  I’m not implying that living recklessly is prudent.  I’m simply pointing out that the future is not guaranteed and retirement may not be all that it is cracked up to be.  Wouldn’t it be a shame to get to age 65 before you learned that lesson?  Following the conventional retirement plan is gambling, except that even if you win, the payout isn’t all that grand.

The conventional definition of retirement would have us believe that one reason people strive to retire early is so they can ultimately quit working.  The great irony is that many people end up working in retirement anyway, often out of choice, not need.  Working in old age is often thought of as punishment for not earning enough in your earlier years.  In my opinion, nothing could be further from the truth. I know many people who could have retired long ago, but choose to continue working because of the fulfillment and meaning their careers bring to their life.

So, if it turns out that freedom from work isn’t the answer, then why not start the search for a meaningful and fulfilling career immediately instead of waiting until retirement?

Another purported benefit of retiring is the freedom to finally be yourself.  You no longer have to wear a mask and abide by the unspoken customs of Corporate America, which include myriad forced awkward social interactions, such as company happy hours.  When you retire, you finally have the time to focus on the things that matter to you and the important people in your life.  Of course, you could take off the mask and start living this way right now.  Is killing yourself to live really worth that promotion or raise?

We often tell ourselves “if only I had “X” amount of dollars, then I could retire.”  The problem, of course, is that this number is not stagnant.  As desires grow so too does this number.  This is how people end up working a job they hate for their entire life.  Many people cite lack of money as a problem, but in reality it’s simply a perception problem.  There are two ways to become wealthier: increase income or decrease desires.  It might take years to increase the former, but the latter can be changed this instant with one simple decision.

Wealth is relative to desire and is not an absolute. In his book, Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton wrote some words that have become permanently etched into my mind. “Every time we yearn for something we cannot afford, we grow poorer, whatever our resources.  And every time we feel satisfied with what we have, we can be counted as rich, however little we may actually possess.”

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