When you talk about money publicly, in major media outlets, you tend to get more blowback than you do when you’re just talking about your journey on your own blog.
And at this point, I’ve heard it all, or at least I hope I have. Most of that stuff is easy to brush off, because it’s people who don’t know me or Mark acting like they know everything about us and making ridiculous claims. Or the people who are just against anyone getting health insurance from any source other than an employer. (Perhaps those folks would like to see research on how bleak the employer-provided insurance landscape is becoming.) And there are those who say they can’t retire early on a low income, and given the current affordability crisis, paired with the worst wealth inequality since the Great Depression, I know many of those folks are right.
The comments and arguments I find most puzzling are those that seem semantic, but which hide an undercurrent of classism, while revealing a lot about how we define “work,” and whose “work” we value. The statement is usually something simple: “You aren’t really retired,” “You’re still working because you have a blog” or “You just changed careers.” I’ve already written about that topic (and, frankly, find rehashing it incredibly boring), but here are some posts addressing the retirement police:
Instead, today let’s talk about what that “not really retired” argument is really saying, and what it tells us about our messed up relationship with work.
There are two big updates in the blog sidebar that I encourage you to take a look at:
- A new page on Transparency, a topic close to my heart. I encourage you to read it, and I encourage all bloggers to create their own version. It’s my hope that this will become widely adopted, and the absence of a transparency page will be a clear signal to readers that that blog is not entirely straightforward.
- A whole bunch of recently added in-person events! You can always find an up-to-date listing of events and meetups in the sidebar, but here are a bunch of events around Work Optional that are happening in the next month and a half:
Washington, DC: Thursday, May 23, 6:30 PM at Kramerbooks in Dupont Circle
Reno: Thursday, June 6, 6:30 PM at Sundance Books between downtown and Midtown
Sacramento area: Saturday, June 8, 3:00 PM at Face In a Book in El Dorado Hills
San Francisco: Monday, June 24, 6:00 PM at Book Passage in the Ferry Building
Greater Los Angeles: Tuesday, June 25, 7:00 PM at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena
All events are free and open to the public, and there’s no purchase necessary. But you will be able to buy the book at all events, of course, and you’re welcome to bring your own copy for signing if you already have one. I’d love to see you at one of these events if you live nearby!
You’re reading this blog, so I assume I don’t need to tell you that those making the “not really retired” argument to folks like me, other bloggers and early retirees whose hobbies happen to pay them a little are missing the point. The whole reason to pursue a work-optional life is to gain the ability to control your own time, not just to spend your time on activities on some list approved by the retirement police. (By the way, see the Transparency page I just mentioned for more info if you think I’m making big bucks on this blog. It’s likely I could at this point, but I choose not to.)
In Work Optional chapter 1, I talk about the history of retirement, and the fact that it’s still an incredibly new concept, historically speaking, and therefore the idea that it’s One Set Thing (never working in any capacity or earning any money ever) is both not based in historical fact nor based in current fact. A huge number of traditional retirees work in a wide range of roles, some primarily for fun or interest, some because they need extra income. Retirement doesn’t preclude work.
Related post: Retirement Needs a Rebrand
With that in mind, the “not really retired” argument has two main problems. Let’s walk through them.
Work Isn’t Only About Money
The biggest definitional problem with the argument that any early retiree who spends time on something that looks like someone else’s definition of work is that it fundamentally assumes that work can only be done for money, never for purpose, meaning and fulfillment. Or, at least, money must always come first.
That’s a messed up way to view work.
For so many people, work is about much more than money. And retiring early from mandatory work so that you can work entirely on your own terms is pretty much the most incredible position someone can be in.
You can be fully financially independent, never need to earn another penny, retired from your career and working on projects that feel fun and joyful to you… and still call yourself early retired. Sticking only to activities that have no possibility of ever involving earnings severely limits how you can spend your time, and that’s antithetical to everything the early retirement movement is about.
All Kinds of Work Are Valuable, But They’re Not Valued Equally
I believe that a big reason why FIRE bloggers and authors in particular get some of this “not retired” blowback is because our “work” looks just like the work that many college-educated workers do: we sit at a computer and type. And for some of us, that makes money. (In my case, not much. But this isn’t really about me. Some bloggers do make a good amount.)
But let’s say, for example, that instead of spending part of last year writing a book about early retirement, I’d spent that time testing recipes so that I could write a cookbook. That’s many hours in the kitchen every week, with loads of cooking and cleaning. I’d still ultimately be writing a book, but the “work” doesn’t look like white-collar work. It looks like blue-collar work, and even more, it looks like work loaded with gendered baggage. Cooking and cleaning are “women’s work.”
To people who like to police what constitutes “work,” work that looks blue-collar (or like work that women have historically done for no pay) doesn’t carry the same weight and therefore doesn’t “count.” It would be seen more widely as a hobby, not work. The same could be said for any number of other hobbies: anything artistic, anything fundamentally done with hands and not computers, anything outdoors, anything interfacing directly with other people, and on and on. But for huge portions of our workforce, those tasks are their work. But we value those types of jobs less than we value “white collar” or “information economy” work, and therefore it’s easy to write off time spent on those types of tasks as mere hobbies, not a “new career.”
That’s hugely problematic, because it’s loaded with classism. It shouldn’t shock anyone that we view some types of work as more valuable or more worthy than others, but we should push back against that.
I am still waiting for the quip of “You’re not retired because you are watching your children all day, and that is valid work!”
Oh, wait. That will literally never happen.
If taking care of children is paid work for those hired to do it but unpaid if a parent stays home, is it work for one of those people but not the other? Of course not. It’s work in both cases and valuable in both cases. But would anyone ever tell someone they’re not retired because they have kids? Of course not. And that’s my point.
Virtually any task we can possibly spend time on is work for someone.
If you engage in that task purely because you want to do it, doing so doesn’t negate your retirement. And those who judge that doing Task A, which mostly college-educated people do for pay, negates your retirement, while doing Task B, which mostly non-college-educated people do for much less pay, doesn’t, those folks are making an entirely classist argument. It’s time to knock it off.
Our Collective Views on Work Are Messed Up
It’s true that I’ve called some people out as classist by making these arguments, and I stand by that. But that’s not the larger point here. The larger point is that we as a society have incredibly unhealthy views about work. I wrote in Work Optional about our unhealthy work culture, and that’s a huge problem, but it’s also a problem that we view work in these unhealthy ways: that work is only about money, and that only some types of work truly count.
No wonder so many people want to retire early.
If the collective narrative is that you’re only at work to collect a paycheck (while, oh by the way, we’re also working more hours than our parents and grandparents did and we’re expected to be connected at all times), and that your work is only valid and worthy to the extent others in society value it, why would anyone want to continue working one day longer than they have to?
Surely we can do better and tell a truer story.
What do you think? Let’s discuss in the comments!