I just can’t help it, you guys. I feel compelled to keep poking the bear that is the retirement police, those folks who feel the need to tell us if we are or aren’t “retired,” according to whatever their definition happens to be (and it usually happens to be “never lifting a finger for anything that does, or even possibly could, earn a few cents”).
Recently I got this gem of a comment on this piece from a self-appointed retirement cop:
I laughed out loud at the notion that Fred and the royal “we” get to decide if Mr. ONL and I are “indeed” retiring. As though that’s his determination to make, not ours. (Plus, would sharing our numbers with Fred actually change anything for him? I’m sure he’d find some reason why those aren’t legit either, ’cause coppers gonna cop.)
A few weeks ago I took on the retirement police and their definition of retirement. And since then, we’ve done a lot more thinking about how we define retirement, and why we’re so attached to the term “early retirement” instead of just saying “financial independence” like plenty of bloggers do, even though we think it’s largely a semantic difference. (We also feel attached to “early retirement” because we became financially independent more than a year ago, but aren’t quite at the place we’d feel most comfortable actually retiring. But soon!)
With that added thinking, I’ve come up with as simple a definition as I can get it down to, and I think this aligns to our thinking pretty well:
Of course, this is all predicated on our plan to leave our careers as soon as we believe we have a comfortable cushion built up with plenty of contingencies, and the definition might not apply equally well to those who pursue financial independence but have no desire to leave their careers. But that’s exactly the point:
Anyone who says otherwise is selling something (or trolling you). And to those folks, we should all loudly proclaim:
That’s for us to decide for our lives, and you to decide for yours. Retirement police have no place in the discussion.
Subscribe to Blog via Email
What Rules Us
My super simple definition of retirement, arrived at through lots of evolving thinking over time, doesn’t mention work at all. To us, it’s all about what we’re ruled by. And right now we need that work income, and are ruled by that need. Not nearly as badly as we were when we lived paycheck-to-paycheck, but fundamentally our lives are built around activities that put anything-but-passive income into our account twice each month. This is how most people live.
But by the end of the year, we’ll be able to profoundly shift how we structure our lives. Money will more or less take care of itself, and it won’t be something we need to actively pursue. This will leave us free to be ruled by our passions, and by things that sound fun. That will mean more fully actualizing our purpose — service, creativity and adventure — and following our noses to the next project that we’re stoked to undertake.
Right now we work, but that isn’t ultimately what defines this stage in our lives, because it is not unique to this stage. We’re currently defined by the need to do a certain kind of work, the kind of work that is guaranteed to bring us a paycheck that covers all the costs of sustaining our lives. After we retire, we’ll still work, and it won’t define that stage in our lives either. Instead, we’ll be defined by the ability to do only the work that excites us, regardless of whether it brings in money or not.
Bottom line: Work or lack thereof isn’t the factor that distinguishes pre-retirement from retirement. The distinguishing factor is what rules us: the need to earn income or the ability to follow our passions.
But it’s still worth asking…
What Is Work Anyway? Another Thought Experiment
Writing this blog is a continually interesting thought exercise for me, because the act of doing it provokes questions that tie right into our post-retirement lives. Questions like: If something doesn’t make money, is it still work? If I spend a lot of time on something that leads to other things that could make money, am I still retired? And so on. (Answer to the second question: Yes, if I want to call myself retired, because I get to define it how I want.)
Some of this is entirely the kind of navel-gazing thinking that we can do here on early retirement blogs because we all think too much about this stuff. But some of the inherent question here — what is work? — is directly relevant to our post-retirement lives and how we see ourselves.
Let’s say I love painting, to tie into the first example from my last retirement police post, and I spend hours and hours each week painting a new canvas. (Let’s assume this time, though, that I don’t sell these paintings. This is pure hobby.) I do this entirely because I’m passionate about it and I find it fun, but the act of creating each painting is still work. Each one takes hours, it takes patience, it takes persistence. I might have to redo sections that weren’t to my liking the first time, or keep touching them up until they look right to me. I start each painting because I love the craft of it, but at some point in every one, I end up feeling compelled to keep refining it even when other things are calling — meal time, bedtime, time I could be spending on other activities. When each canvas is done, the time I’ve spent on it feels worthwhile, and I’m proud of having finished.
It’s easy to dismiss this as not work. It’s clearly a hobby, not something I do with any hope of ever making income from it, and I undertake each project because I love it. Maybe instead of calling it “work,” I call it “play.” Or “fun painting,” or any other term that makes clear that it’s not “real.”
That might be fine, depending on what else I have going on in my life, but it also might not. We all as humans want to feel useful. We perhaps feel even more pressure to be useful in the U.S., where our capitalist society is based on the Calvinist work ethic, essentially the idea that our worth is signaled by our worldly activity (read: work).
In the case of the blog, it feels like an easier call: It’s clearly work, even though I don’t attempt to draw an income from it. A few indicators of that are:
- My dedication to posting twice a week, regardless of how busy work is, whether I’m out of the country, etc.
- The fact that I will give up sleep to hit my (self-imposed) deadlines.
- My ongoing efforts to improve my blogging and to think of more interesting topics.
- The fact that I have a sizable email backlog, just as one might at work. (I swear I haven’t ignored notes — I’m just slooooooow.)
All of that said, I could also call this little hobby of mine play. I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t fun, so that label fits too. But in this case, calling it play feels more obviously trivializing than slapping a “fun” or “hobby” label on painting does.
Why is that? What makes one thing work and another thing not?
If we decided that this blog is not work because I don’t try to make money at it, the thought experiment question to follow up with would be: What if I slapped a few ads on it? Then would it be work, if it was making some money? Or what if I didn’t make money at it, but I tried to? So same net result as now (no income), but wildly different intentions and effort. If I sold a few paintings instead of just doing them all for myself, then is it work? (Responses on the last post would tend to agree that it is.) How about if I painted them intending to sell some, but then was unsuccessful and made no money? Is that work or not?
These are intended to be gray area examples because most cases of work are easy to spot, but not all are.
There Is Always Work
I’ve heard a few dozen times in the last few weeks some variation of “no one really retires.” And you can probably guess that I disagree with that statement, only because we each get to decide if what we’re doing constitutes retirement or not, regardless of what anyone else might deem it.
What I do agree with is few people truly stop working. There are always chores to be done, and projects around the home. Those things count as work, too. (I appreciated a recent commenter who shared that calling only income-generating activity “work” belittles stay-at-home parents, and I think that’s an important reminder. Tasks can be valuable and still be “work” without earning income.)
And, for most of us aiming for early retirement, the whole point of achieving that freedom is to be able to spend our time on the projects that excite us. I don’t know anyone pursuing early retirement or financial independence who plans to sit in a rocking chair for 50 years.
When we think about those projects that excite us, I’d like to posit that not only can we think of those projects as work, but we should think of them that way. Both to remind ourselves that we’re contributing that “worldly activity” that makes us useful, and to reinforce that work vs. no work isn’t the right way to think of life before and after retirement.
But ultimately, just as with retirement, it’s up to us to decide what we want to call something:
What are your definitions?
So tell us — What is your definition of work? What is your definition of retirement? How do you see the distinction between life before and after retirement? Anyone agree with our belief that retirement is determined by what rules us, not whether or not we’re doing work? As always, we love hearing from folks with the full range of perspectives (including those who don’t agree with us!), so let’s dive into it all in the comments.
Thanks for reading!
Want extra Our Next Life content? Get the e-newsletter!
Subscribe to get our monthly newsletter with tons of top secret info we'll never share here on the blog. It's like a whole extra post or two a month!