What Reactions to the FIRE Movement Tell Us About Our Messed Up Relationship with Work, by Tanja Hester, Our Next Life // early retirement, financial independence, work optional, adventure, happinesscommunity

What Reactions to the FIRE Movement Tell Us About Our Messed Up Relationship With Work

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:

A Thought Experiment for the Retirement Police // Where’s the Line on Retirement?

What Is “Work”? // Creating Our Own Definitions and More for 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.

But first! 

There are two big updates in the blog sidebar that I encourage you to take a look at:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!

What Reactions to the FIRE Movement Tell Us About Our Messed Up Relationship with Work, by Tanja Hester, Our Next Life // early retirement, financial independence, work optional, adventure, happiness

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.

And that’s not even getting into all the unpaid work people do. I recently tweeted about this topic, and my friend Brian from Done by Forty replied with this:

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.

Your Turn

What do you think? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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37 replies »

  1. Yeah it is a shame some feel they MUST rain on our parades. And often for silly reasons. Retirement can be however one personally defines it. Most retirees today still work, technically: either a part time job or sitting grandkids, or volunteering, among other part time endeavors.

    I like the push for transparency too. I don’t think my blog would get any readership if I didn’t have the occasional confession or skeptic’s freak-out rant.

    • While some may indeed be envious people raining on your parades, others like me might view FI as quite distinct from RE. If work is optional, thatvis Financial Independence and that is wonderful. However if you are earning money from a different lower paying career which you love, unsure how it can be considered RE. It is not the messed up relationship with work but a question of conceptual clarity. A person who is FI may choose not to retire and that is ok. They may choose work that they do not earn from in which case they are FI. The issue is not whether you work or not but whether you earn or not. If you earn from work (as distinct from a passive income) then you maybe FI but are not RE imho.

  2. So much more needs to be said on this topic. I’m very interested in understanding how we got to this place. It isn’t uniquely American that we do so much work (Asian cultures fully support long hours and little vacation time as well) but it is different than several European countries that our ancestors originated from. And so many gendered issues as well! I am reluctant to quit my paid job, not because I can’t afford it, but because it is perceived as adding value to society. But there are many things I would enjoy doing that need to be done outside of my paid job–namely caring for 2 kids. But that is not valued work.

  3. I’ve never understood the “you’re not retired complaints” about bloggers who don’t earn much money from their blogs, who haven’t inflated their retirement lifestyles, or who retired with a SWR well below 4%.

    However, I do get why some people complain when they see a blogger advocate for the 4% rule, yet let their retirement lifestyles run wild because they have blog income. There are bloggers who were literally spending under $40k before retiring a few years back, yet now can spend over $100k. (Or in the case of one blogger, he went from sharing a 3 bedroom apartment with roommates to advocating for $300k of income per year being the standard for a middle class family while pretending his only income is as a high school tennis coach). And they continue to act like nothing has changed in terms of 4% rule spending. When you see that as a reader, it makes you question the validity of the 4% rule and the advice that blogger has been giving you.

    In that situation, the complaint is less that the person is doing work for enjoyment/fulfillment; rather, readers feel that this person is only surviving in retirement because of this new CAREER that 99% of readers won’t have available to them in retirement. It’s those few cases where a bit more transparency from the blogger would be nice.

    • Largely agree with this. But other than agreeing with this statement or when the question is posed, I don’t mention anything in the comments of a blog. For example, I’m not going to go over to massively monetized blog and say “You’re not retired!” I don’t see that as being productive.

      For myself, I just specifically focus on obtaining financial independence where my almost 100% passive income (stocks and the like) with investment growth will see me through until death. At that point, whether I’m working, semi-retired, retired, I don’t care. Just being FI will be nice enough and I won’t worry about semantics regarding how I spend my time.

      Which…seems to be Tanja’s point here. :) Plus, she’s big on that transparency bit as well, which I like so much.

  4. Envy is real, but if often manifests itself as bitterness. Maybe those comments come from people who’ve had a horrid day at work, or are directing all their frustrations at you because you’re the target of the day. Have you ever read Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street? It has absolutely nothing to do with blogging or financial independence, but it does offer insight into envious humanity.

  5. I agree that many throwing shade fall into the envy and disbelief category. Denial is the first step in most behavioral change models and many see our stories and stay in denial (not all but many). Also, those that have not hit FI and then tried the RE part have an assumption of what it looks like (umbrella drinks and beach). Once you get here, you understand some of the intricacies of what is worth maintaining from work and what is not. Accomplishment is still fun as is being part of a community with a shared goal. You understand the value of being able to choose every day and some of those choices look like work. Trying to describe that to someone in denial who has not been there yet may be like describing the color blue to a blind man.

  6. It’s crazy how different the reactions are to early retirement! You’re introducing people to it that don’t know you, and as you mentioned, they aren’t aware of your journey.

    So far everyone I’ve talked to are either friends, coworkers or people who stumble on my blog – in all cases they’re curious, interested and most importantly have some trust built up.

    Talking with strangers and introducing early retirement ideas sounds like it can go either way – people click with the idea or push back. I have a feeling the “push backers” are in the minority, but they’re vocal about their statements on “why that could never work for me” – whether valid or not.

  7. The classist bit sticks out to me the most – it’s amazing what we consider to be “work” and what not to be. The fact they BaristaFI has been coined makes me think many people have not worked backbreaking, low wage, stressful jobs, and don’t realize that just because you’re paid less doesn’t mean it isn’t really hard work. Blogging, for one, is a heck of a lot easier than working a minimum wage retail job.

  8. The classism / sexism argument is forced and unpersuasive. If a “retired” person of whatever gender worked in a coffee shop or hotel front desk, or cleaned windows or washed dishes, people–yes, even and especially those who police retirement–would recognize those “blue collar” activities as real work. The issue is compensation. Most people have an intuitive understanding of what financial independence means, but there will always be room to argue over whether someone who chooses to engage in work for pay is “retired” or not. Ultimately, each person has to make an honest assessment of whether she or he is genuinely financially free; the opinions of others, including and especially the retirement police, are irrelevant.

  9. I think you have unfairly misrepresented Financial Samurai is your comment. Sam Dogen is pretty transparent about his financial situation and income sources. Be careful not to confuse the syndicated versions of his posts with his originals. For click bait reasons, the republishers sometimes change the headline and imply a different editorial slant as compared to the original.

    • I suspected it was Sam on that example. While I didn’t respond to it there I agree with you. Sam is pretty straightforward. He’s also hilarious. And he’s sooooo conservative with his projections that I think he probably is FI right now even with his baller lifestyle.

  10. A little off point, but a thought triggered by the discussion about how we think of childcare as work or not work and what we consider “retirement” – I’m curious how couples handle the allocation of non-paid work after giving up a paid job. This has become a bit of an issue for us. We both worked for pay, but over time things shifted where I continued the paid work and my partner focused on other time consuming obligations, such as child care, laundry, shopping, cooking, putting in countless hours with aging parents, etc. that collectively make up at least a full time job. We think so much about financial independence meaning not having to work that I was a bit blindsided by the realization that retirement doesn’t mean the non-paid work disappears and my partner’s quite reasonable expectation that I take on half of the non-paid tasks so that she too gets to enjoy a form of retirement. Not quite what I expected and am having second thoughts about trading in what I find to be fulfilling paid work for less enjoyable domestic chores.

    • This is a really interesting point you raised. I’d also be interested to hear how couples adjust the division of unpaid work, or what I’ve been learning is termed “emotional labor”, after giving up a paid job, too.

      I’ve been the stay at home parent since having kids three years ago, immediately after getting married. Now I’m going back to paid work outside of the home and I’m not sure what is going to happen with all the emotional labor that I took on as part of my role. It’s the only way we’ve defined our relationship since getting married so changing roles we be a huge adjustment. The kids will go to childcare but there’s so much more that will have to get renegotiated. I’m waiting for the book “Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward” by Gemma Hartley from my local library hoping it will give me some insight to navigate this shift. Best wishes to you and your partner as you figure it out on the other side of paid work!

  11. Thanks Tanja, this helped me clarify my own definition of retirement. Our own definitions are the only ones that really matter anyway. Right now 55 hours of my week are dedicated to “work.” While I enjoy part of this time, there are definitely things I would rather be doing with the most of it. When I retire, I will definitely be doing things that are “work,” but I will be doing them because I want to. For simplicity, my definition of retirement is doing what I want with my time which includes not caring what other people think about my definition.

  12. plantations and sweat shops were replaced by corporations operating on the same cheap labor principles. it’s no wonder people hate their jobs and lash out at anyone who’s found a happier path. do what you love and never work a day of your life. if you attain the highest levels of your passion, the prosperity will come.

  13. I think you are just starting to peel back the layers on this subject and while I don’t know exactly what it is, it’s revealing something deeper than the classist and sexist arguments which in some ways seem like easy critical targets (because it is so reflexive for many to go there). It’s interesting regardless and I think some of the criticism comes from folks being forced to question everything they ever believed about adulthood and consumerism and, I don’t know, the meaning of life. :) It’s super fun for us work optional folks to ponder but I imagine it’s super uncomfortable if you fall outside of the mindset so instead of probing their own anxious feelings, they just throw shade on it!

  14. Hmm, I tend to see this a different way (albeit from the sidelines, since I’m still a working stiff, so I’m sure my perspective is quite limited). Here are a few examples of what I mean

    – I tend to see a decent number of people say, “I would never retire early, I’d be so bored!” On the surface I see that and think that this person needs some hobbies…but I get what they mean. I think that people mean that they get a sense of purpose and fulfillment from their work that they do not get from other activities which may be more fun, but ultimately less rewarding.
    – I also see a people saying, “you’re not retired, you’re a stay at home parent,” contrary to the tweet from Brian. In particular, I think this is happens if one spouse is still working.
    – I also think that a lot of people would react to the idea of BarisaFIRE and say that also is not retired, even though that’s not white collar work. (Also, ugh to the term BaristaFire. I really liked your article on that.)

    At the end of the day, t’s all semantics. When one group of people says retirement they mean something fairly distinct from what most people in the FIRE community mean. For me, it’s all about creating finical independence, and then using that security to do whatever the heck you want. For me it’s not about the “retired” it’s about the “freedom.”

  15. In my opinion, society can have whatever definition of work it wants. As a stay-at-home mom, I realize that many people judge our situation. And frankly it doesn’t matter to us. We are happy. My work is valuable to me and my family and that is all that matters. I have never identified as being my job so whatever other people think is work or not does not impact my worth. When we retire early, I don’t think I’ll have any worries about what the retirement police think.

  16. Don’t feel bad, mine was deleted also (my comment was about people using negative labels). I guess the desire is to have an echo chamber comment section for this blog. Time to move on.

  17. My husband used to work as a lawyer until he got a much better job. He became a stay-at-home Dad 16 years ago. He works so hard raising our son and he has never regretted his decision. We encounter people who think my husband is not working, or ask if he does any legal work on the side (he doesn’t due to the high cost of malpractice insurance). Work doesn’t have to fill your wallet, it can also fill your heart.

  18. I think people attack you because you are a little too self-promotional. Just look at this post. Use that as an opportunity to pitch your book. Then look at your Twitter where are you pin your CNBC interview.

    If you can be a little bit less self-promotional, you probably wouldn’t get as much blowback.

    • Patty, do you find it unseemly for authors to promote their books? Maybe it’s just me, but that seems like a pretty normal thing for an author to do. Actors promote their latest movie. Artists promote their art. I would call this a good business practice.

      My own theory about the ‘blowback’ is that there are many people in the world who are jealous of those who achieve financial independence. A story on CBS sunday morning last week said that 67% of full-time workers daydream about quitting their jobs. Tanja and Mark have achieved that. So it’s natural that there would be jealousy and/or skepticism coming from many fronts.

    • All authors have to promote their books just as actors have to promote their shows and movies, it’s part of the job. How much self promotion is allowed, Patty? Is there some set limit we don’t know about? Seems like a strange point to focus on considering amount of self promotion has nothing to do with how people feel about the concept of work or early retirement.

  19. I civilly disagree with the FIRE movement’s use of the words early retired to describe the period of earning money after leaving a job. I volunteer with people learning to read. It is hard enough to explain how to pronounce sugar when there is no h and why he went to school instead of goed without explaining to a refugee trying to get a minimum wage job why it’s retirement and not self employment to promote a blog or book in the national news and classist or a messed up relationship with work to say otherwise. There are so many rules already to what types of jobs and how long one must have it to be considered retirement rather than quitting, unemployment, or choosing to be a stay at home spouse that IMHO it just doesn’t make sense to continue to call it retirement rather than a career change or semi retirement if it also includes some level of employment earnings. I am highly uncomfortable telling students to use the appearance of personal wealth to decide which word is appropriate but that seems to be the main distinction the FIRE community uses for retirement rather than daily activities or earnings that non-FIRE people use to describe retirement.

    I see my earlier comment was deleted and am sorry it was not considered civil enough as I meant it to balance out the overall conversation. Many bloggers prefer an echo chamber of agreement with each post but you state you are open to discussion. I think seeing both sides keeps us sharp and helps us each clarify our understanding so I appreciate you offering this space for discussion that isn’t just one sided. It is your blog so your right to delete anything you don’t want. I have hopefully dropped the portion you found offensive.

  20. My plan for retirement is two fold. My wife and I will not stop working until we can afford to stop working at all, but then plan on what I call downshifting. I do not want to work the way I do until I am 65. I work a lot of long hours, and it’s often not a lot of fun even though I do love to code. The plan for me is to take a lower paying, lower stress, job for a few years before we retire. Now if that job grows out of some future hobby, like blogging in your case, so much the better.

    My thoughts on your critics regarding self promotion and the like is that I support you. If people are paying you to do what you are doing, then great for you. If someone was paying me enough to talk about astronomy, my favorite hobby, then I would retire, and do that. Enjoy your freedom, and I look forward to mine!

  21. That was a wonderful post! I’m a semi-early retired blogger but unlike many I haven’t monetized it because to me it would take the fun out of it. Which is also why I have maybe four people who read it. But I do still earn a lot of money I don’t need in my retirement because I feel I need to work a few hours a week. At my rates, which are ridiculously high due to the massive amount of privilege I monetized during my career, consulting on arcane regulatory and engineering issues one day a week makes me enough to keep our withdrawal rate at zero. I try to be very transparent and don’t attempt to tell normal people how to reach FI or FIRE, because I don’t know, I was always overpaid and even a complete idiot would have gotten FI at my income level. I stick to things like career tips because I had a fun and lucrative career, or controlling lifestyle costs because we were frugal when we didn’t have to be. And side gigging in retirement, in ways other than blogging, because it could work for many more if they planned it out in advance like I did.

  22. I fully agree with your statement that not all work is valued equally. I feel the same way about degrees. I wrote a post about why I feel that college should only be 8 months. I mean, why are we taking so many electives. Let’s skip the gravy and just stick with the meat and potatoes shall we?

    Employers say that they cannot calculate what some starting salaries should be based on degree or put a price on it, but colleges sure put a price tag on that degree! And no 2 degrees are considered equal. Two people could go to the same college, pay the same $60,000 in tuition, but one is an engineer and the other is an English major. Starting pay: Engineer $90,000 and English major $37,000. There, I just showed that education is not an equalizer. Especially, when it comes to income.

    All degrees are not equally valued. I suggest people look up starting salaries in their field and strategize and focus on how to save 50% or more of your income no matter how much you make.

    That’s just my 2 cents.


  23. The nice thing about living in America is you can do whatever you want. Want to work? Get a job. Want to blog? type away. Your time belongs to you and how you spend it is on you. When I worked, I worked hard and was successful. successful enough I don’t need to work or blog or side gig any longer. I just do what I want when I want. I have no need to virtue signal, or try and create Utopian rules to govern society. Politics is a pain in the ass. Look down your nose at me with your Utopian vision and I just may punch it.