While he didn’t invent early retirement, it’s certainly true that Pete Adeney, better known as Mr. Money Mustache, created the first high-profile early retirement blog and was the person who drew the most mainstream media attention to the FIRE movement. And Pete has done a ton of good, spreading the idea far and wide that if more stuff doesn’t make you happy, you can save the money you had been spending buying that stuff and instead buy yourself out of work. You’re already reading here, so I know you don’t need convincing.
The problem is what has followed from that: the notion that, because the first big early retired blogger was a white, male, 30s software engineer, he must therefore be the prototype for everyone who does this, an idea that seems to grow more persistent, not less, even as the FIRE blogging community continues to grow and diversify rapidly.
In the recent New York Times piece giving the FIRE movement its 15 minutes of fame, the author Steven Kurutz asserts, “Followers of FIRE tend to be male and work in the tech industry, left-brained engineer-types who geek out on calculating compound interest over 40 years, or the return on investment (R.O.I.) on low-fee index funds versus real estate rentals.” It’s a suspiciously bold claim given that there is zero real data on early retirees as defined by the FIRE movement. The only official statistics give us an unsatisfying level of detail: those who retire at age 50 or younger make up less than 1 percent of the population. (The article also said it was about retiring in your 30s, but focused primarily on our friend Carl, who retired in his 40s. And it went on to talk about a pharmacist, the amazing Vicki Robin, and Scott and Taylor Rieckens, none of whom are in tech, and only our friends Kristy and Bryce who were in tech. But let’s not be bothered by facts.)
Then there was the recent California Sunday Magazine story in which the writer went to a FIRE meetup in San Francisco, a city that’s rapidly pushing out the low-earning artists and nonprofit types in favor of total tech domination, and which has for years been the capital of tech anyway, and therefore concluded that, “The typical FIRE devotee is a young, white male.”
Isn’t that a little like going to a meeting of the high school chess club and proclaiming, “Chess players tend to be high school aged”? Or going to the state fair and concluding, “All foods tend to be fried and served on a stick”?
There’s massive selection bias going on in some of these stories, and they’re perpetuating the false notion that financial independence is only for some people. Or that you must possess certain qualities (mostly nerdy, wealthy ones) to achieve it. And that’s harmful.
Stereotypes like that — especially incorrect ones — wall us off rather than make the movement inclusive, and that’s the exact opposite of what this movement is about. As I said in a recent FIRE story in HowStuffWorks — a story that was much more balanced and not focused solely on the tech bros — the FIRE blogosphere is a beacon of positivity online:
Despite its fair share of spreadsheet geeks, Hester calls the FIRE online community the “most positive place on the internet.”
(I didn’t actually say “despite.” I love the spreadsheet geeks.) ;-)
It’s like when people write to me and say, “Well, I don’t really belong in the FIRE movement because I’m retiring at 52.” Or when I meet people at events who say sheepishly, “I probably don’t belong here because I don’t work in tech…” We are sending a message, intended or not, that some people don’t belong here. And that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
So how can we kill this myth once and for all?
The Implicit Bias In Who Stands for The FIRE Movement
It’s a mistake to assume that FIRE bloggers are a representative sample of FIRE “devotees,” as the breathless tech bro stories like to call us. There’s something slightly twisted and perverse about someone who feels the compulsion to share their inner journey with strangers on the internet (said by someone who shares her inner journey with strangers on the internet), and it would be another case of selection bias to conclude that those of us doing so reflect the demographics, interests and vocations of everyone doing so.
But even if we assume that bloggers do represent the phenomenon well, it’s not even a little bit true that we’re mostly white men working in tech. It’s simply true that a lot of those who got to the table first — especially Brandon at Mad Fientist, Jeremy at Go Curry Cracker and Jacob at Early Retirement Extreme — happen to fit that description.
Angela at Tread Lightly, Retire Early has created an extensive list of women bloggers in the FIRE movement, most of whom do not work in tech. As she wrote in the intro to her list:
A few months ago… I was reading through a list of personal finance bloggers and there was literally one female listed. When someone asked in the comments below, this blogger said he didn’t know any others, which is absolutely crazy, because there are so many fantastic women in this space… There is also a huge list of male financial bloggers, especially, male (software) engineers, starting with the original Mr Money Mustache… When it comes to finance in general, that’s the default expectation across the board.
It’s so true. Like when you ask people to envision a CEO in their minds, most people will picture a 50-something white male. Just because that’s what we’re socialized to believe doesn’t mean that’s actually true, or that that’s the only way it can be. That’s just our implicit bias talking.
But male and tech doesn’t have to be the default setting. J. at Millennial Boss (also of FIRE Drill podcast) put together a rundown of several dozen bloggers who are not male software engineers, which further proves the point.
Uh, Hi. Women Are Here, Too.
It’s worth calling out on its own here, too: the tech point aside, focusing on the male aspect of FIRE completely devalues the work of women — both in earning toward the goal and doing the thinky planning — which is completely counterproductive. Most people you’ve heard of who’ve achieved early retirement did so on two incomes, and those most often weren’t two male incomes.
Women make by far the bulk of household financial decisions (though their male partners do not always acknowledge this), and women are the primary breadwinners in nearly 40 percent of households. Talking as though we are just some mute, one-dimensional characters in the background of the movement is simply wrong.
And it matters because when that’s the story we tell, we’re telling women that they aren’t welcome here. That it’s a boys’ club.
And let’s be real. Certain parts of the FIRE community online are a boys’ club. The FIRE subreddit is not known to be especially women-friendly, and that’s why a women’s sub split off from it. It’s why the first Cents Positive sold out so quickly. And lots of bloggers, when compiling “best of” lists, leave women off completely or list a single token, because — as Angela noted above — they “don’t know of any women.” The problem isn’t that the women aren’t here, it’s just that those particular bloggers haven’t bothered to look or to examine their own implicit bias.
But that’s not the bulk of the community.
Most of the FIRE community is welcoming, supportive and ready to cheer on anyone willing to live a little differently. That’s the story we should be telling, instead of repeating this dumb lie about young white dudes in tech.
Who Is Welcome In the FIRE Movement
Here’s what we do know to be true: those pursuing early retirement tend to earn more than average (often much more — there is no point in sugar-coating this fact or pretending like we’re all “middle class”), and we tend to be smart. But tech doesn’t have a monopoly on those qualities.
Sure, tech workers tend to earn more than the average, but so do lots of career paths. And plenty of early retired folks have achieved that goal without earning big bucks. There are FIRE bloggers and aspirants whose work had nothing to do with tech, engineering or math (hi!), along with lots of folks in corporate America, publishing, realty, social work, education, academia, nonprofits, health care, finance, government, the military, applied science, consulting and insurance — and that’s just the people I know personally.
Which is to say: everyone is welcome here. Whether you love spreadsheets or not. Whether you enjoy math or not. Whether you love craft beer or not. Whether you’re male, female or nonbinary. Whether you’re financially coupled or financially single. Whether you make a bunch of money or not.
What matters is not your profession or what you majored in in college, but that you’re game to think about your money differently and work hard to achieve a big goal. That’s the only prerequisite.
Let’s Kill This Myth Once and For All
Please share your thoughts! How do we kill off these idea that it’s only men in tech here? What can each of us do to counter this myth when it pops up? How can we counter our own internal bias when it affirms this myth? Let’s all share our ideas in the comments. And those who don’t fit the supposed mold, chime in, too! Let’s build out the list of folks who can prove that the men in tech notion might be a cute story, but it’s not actually representative of the movement as a whole.