Don’t Retire at Forty

don't retire early

He who seeks rest finds boredom. He who seeks work finds rest.” —Dylan Thomas

Living in a transient, entrepreneurially minded city like Los Angeles—corrupt, wasteful local and state government tropes aside—one does not often meet people who are thinking about their retirement plans. For better or worse, most people are here to work. They are desperate to work. And, if they can get a foot in the door of the entertainment industry, they plan on working until their agent stops returning their calls and the last GoFundMe dollar has dried up.

There are both good and bad things to say about being so driven to work, and I fully appreciate that L.A. is not necessarily the best case study for a discussion about a healthy view of work, but a recent Bloomberg Businessweek piece that sought to give readers advice on how some Americans are finding ways to “retire by the age of 40” doesn’t strike me as a promising development for our culture either.

The article references three different early retirees and how they are making their lack of work work for them:

“Before Sydney Lagier retired in 2008, at 44, she set up an elaborate spreadsheet to take her and her husband to age 100. Every quarter since, the couple, both certified public accountants, review their spending and investments. Eight years later, everything’s on track, despite the global financial crisis. ‘I figure if I kept my cool during the worst recession of my lifetime, I can probably weather any storm now.”

Fair enough. But what does one do all day as a young, spry retiree?

“Lagier tried working part time for a while but didn’t enjoy it: ‘There was so much I wanted to be doing that I wasn’t getting time for.’ Now she keeps busy taking piano lessons, exercising, and writing a book about retirement. Her husband is learning the acoustic guitar, and the pair regularly head into San Francisco to listen to live jazz.”

With all due respect to Mr. Lagier’s enthusiasm for acoustic guitar, this existence (and the others cited in the Bloomberg piece) seems devoid of purpose beyond relaxation. Of course, everybody enjoys a vacation or extended periods of leisure, and hobbies offer people time to pursue non-monetary goals that can be deeply fulfilling. But humans are happiest when they are working, especially in an occupation that gives them a sense of purpose. Every great thinker through the ages has had something positive to say about the necessity of work, and many have spoken of its inherent dignity. In all religions and cultures, those who refuse to work, seek ways out of having to do it, or incessantly complain while engaged in it are held in contempt.

With the exception of the U.S. Congress, evidently. In 2008, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), channeling Marx, suggested that most people would quit their jobs and become artists if only they didn’t need health insurance:

“Think of an economy where people could be an artist or a photographer or a writer without worrying about keeping their day job in order to have health insurance!”

Encouraging people to see the need to provide for themselves as a nuisance, and participation in sustained employment as a hurdle to overcome, is a false promise of the worst kind. It presumes that self-worth is found only in things like leisure time and the arts. It assumes that the problem is work itself, not the type of work one has chosen to engage in (or the attitude a person has chosen to embrace while working).

And, more than anything else, it sends the horrible message to children and students that their goal ought to be figuring out how to check out of being a productive member of society as quickly as possible rather than working to contribute to that society. Leisure and the arts are things we enjoy for the purposes of rejuvenation and inspiration, but we need work—preferably purposeful work—to be happy (and not just to pay the bills or the health insurance company).

So don’t unpack that retirement plan and acoustic guitar just yet. Instead, do your best to find purposeful work (or have gratitude for the work that you are able to get) and return retirement to what it used to be: something to look forward to enjoying in one’s old age, not in one’s prime.

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  • retiredsyd

    Hmm, so do you think that musicians and writers aren’t really “productive members” of society? Or is it just that they have to be paid to be contributing to society?