Today we’re sharing stories we haven’t talked about before here: the early retirees we’ve known in our lives, and how their experiences both shaped their own retirements and influenced us.
Spoiler: Though all of them retired early, none of them retired completely on their own terms.
And these folks aren’t some anomalies — retiring earlier than planned is super common. We all like to believe that we’ll retire when we’re good and ready, which many people today unfortunately define as “never,” but in reality 55 percent of people retire earlier than they intend to. In case you’re reading this before you’ve had your coffee, let me restate that in simpler terms, because it’s super important: that’s more than half. Meaning: the majority of people retire before they expect to, and it’s the lucky minority who get to leave work when and how they want to.
That’s a sobering statistic.
And this isn’t just an “old person problem,” either. As one of our case studies shows, one early retiree we know was forced to retire unexpectedly at age 30. While we still don’t know if we’ll ultimately get to retire on our terms because it hasn’t happened yet, we know that we’re already among a lucky few for even being able to seriously contemplate that possibility.
The most common reason for earlier-than-intended retirement is health problems. And that’s the driving force behind two of the three early retirements that we grew up around. Ageism is the second leading cause, and that represents our third case study. As we’ve learned, the “when” of your retirement matters a lot, but the “how” matters even more, and can create lasting side effects that stick with you.
Case Study #1: Ms. ONL’s dad
I’ve written about my dad’s disability once before, in our post about why we’re in such a hurry to retire early. What I haven’t talked about is that his disability forced his retirement, but in a deeply unfair way that created some very real ripple effects throughout his life and mine that last to this day.
Ever heard of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)? Most of its provisions took effect in January 1992. How do I know that? Because my dad’s former employer let him go on December 31, 1991, specifically so that it would not have to provide the accommodations to him required by the new law. After spending his entire career with one company, he was essentially discarded with little notice by a heartless employer. He didn’t get to choose his “when” or “how,” but suddenly found himself without a career in his early 40s.
While he didn’t expect that that was his “retirement,” he also felt he didn’t have the choice to go back to work, because that would have meant giving up the long-term disability insurance payments that he got in lieu of a paycheck. And he knew that employers would see the new ADA as a major imposition and would be unlikely to hire someone covered by it.
He had gotten to retire young, but not remotely on his own terms. And he couldn’t spend his time how he wanted to (working!) because of how it had all gone down. Though he’d tell you now that he wouldn’t trade what happened, because it meant that we got to spend so much more time together while I still lived at home, he felt like retirement was something that happened to him, instead of something he chose. And I took away from it a deep-seated disdain for discrimination in all its forms.
Case Study #2: Family friend
We have a close family friend who has always given off the vibe of good health, even when my dad knew him in college. But despite that, he was diagnosed with stage four cancer in his mid-20s, required years of treatment for it, and, after many painful surgeries and rounds of chemo and radiation, was ultimately given a clean bill of health at age 30 — along with his military discharge.
He wasn’t discharged through “separation,” but was given a full military retirement (“retirement for physical disability”). So he had a full military pension for life — along with no clue of what to do with himself.
His retirement was now decades ago, and while he has been acting “retired” for the past several years, for many years before that he was amassing the most random and disjointed resume possible. He tried this, he dabbled in that, he made a go at this. But nothing ever stuck or seemed to be what he was looking for. He didn’t retire when or how we wanted to (if he’d even ever thought about retirement before age 30!), and it sure seems like he’s struggled to find his purpose since then.
Case Study #3: Mr. ONL’s dad
Mr. ONL’s dad was a career government employee, and he knew that his particular line of work had a clear cut-off date: 30 years. It didn’t matter how good you were at your job, how dedicated, how qualified. At 30 years in, you were simply too old and had to move out to pasture.
In his case, he was 55 when his retirement date came along, and it didn’t matter one bit whether we felt he’d accomplished all he wanted to do. Though while he couldn’t retire necessarily when he wanted to, unlike our other cases, he knew it was coming, and could at least retire how he wanted to.
Instead of slinking off into the shadows the way a person too sick to keep working might (or a person deemed too costly to accommodate), he was able to celebrate his retirement with a big party. He was able to proudly call himself retired, instead of struggling to explain his situation whenever asked about it. Having control of his “how” made all the difference.
Lessons We Take From These Real-Life Case Studies
We sometimes joke that we learned a big lesson from seeing both of our dads retire early: Working until you’re old is for the birds! But that’s making light of a whole slew of important lessons we’ve actually learned from their situations, as well as our family friend’s. Here are just the biggest lessons:
Retiring on our own terms will be a huge privilege — The data that show that more than half of people retire before they intend to or are financially ready should be enough to drive this home, but we have seen it in our own lives: Not everyone gets to be done when they say they’re done. And most likely everyone knows someone with a story like this, though they may be too ashamed to talk about it in these terms, and may make it sound like they meant to retire when they did. If we truly get to hand in our notice next year and retire both when and how we want to, we’ll be incredibly lucky.
A long lead-up to ER is a good thing — Two of our three case studies had retirement sprung on them as almost a surprise. And as a result, it felt shameful almost, instead of being something to celebrate, something they had planned for. And they felt adrift because they’d never spent time envisioning what they’d do with themselves, what their purpose would be after retiring. We’ve come to believe that the planning itself is an enormously important part of early retirement, because it helps you feel that the retirement itself is purposeful and deliberate — something to be celebrated. And, more importantly, that long lead-up gives you time to plan what you’ll do with yourself once you’re retired, so you don’t find yourself aimless and adrift.
Related post: What They Don’t Tell You About Retiring Early
There’s no shame in not controlling the “how” or “when” — Sometimes I wonder how much different my dad’s self image would be if he’d been able to proudly proclaim, when asked what he does for work, “I retired early!” (like we plan to do very soon!). Now that he’s a more typical retiree age, he doesn’t get asked this as much, but he never had a good answer to that question in the years in between. And that makes me sad. It wasn’t his fault that he got his disability, and it wasn’t his fault that his company lacked the backbone to do right by him. We have to make a point to remind people and ourselves that there’s no shame in not ultimately making this choice of when and how to retire — that’s the norm, after all!
Always have an exit strategy — What’s perhaps most startling about two of our three case studies is that the guys were forced to retire on an incredibly short timeline. They didn’t have time to plan or to restructure their finances. It was more like they just woke up one day, and said, “What now?” It’s not fun to think about, but any of us could wake up in a similar situation if there was a major financial crisis, or if something happened to our health that prevented us from working. (And remember, our two examples were a 30-year-old and a 43-year-old — not elderly people!) Working toward financial independence is some of the best financial preparation there is, but just as we shouldn’t expect that FI is the end of the game, we also shouldn’t take it as a foregone conclusion that we’ll get to full FI. A lot can happen between here and there, and it’s important to know what we’d do if something big happened today. Both so we’re financially prepared for it, and so that we can at least feel that we had some control over the “how” of our retirement, which we’ve learned is so important.
What’s Your Experience?
Have you known anyone in real life who has retired early? Did they get to retire on their own terms or was it forced for a reason beyond their control? Have you observed anything like what we’ve noticed, that those who retire on their own terms feel they can celebrate retirement more than others who don’t choose it? As always, we love hearing from you guys in the comments!