The concept of retirement has always baffled me.
Granted, the concept of having a 9-5 has always baffled me. They’re two sides of a coin, peas in a pod.
I will never retire, and I will also never have a 9-5.
It’s not because I’m a crazy hippie, and it’s not because I’m lazy. I love to work. But I also love time, which is much more valuable than money. Time is non-replenishable, and life pays us in time alone.
The high risk of retirement
For starters, retiring is risky. Not the retirement itself, but the postponement of non-work experiences.
People talk about what they’ll do when they retire, where they’ll go, the pleasures they’ll get to enjoy. How many times have I come across an adult piano student who has saved the learning of an instrument until retirement, and then must battle their stiff and sore muscles through the process?
There’s not enough time. Life gets busy in the 9-5. Work and sleep eat up equal portions of your day, and that remaining third of a pie slice must be divided between family, children and life chores like cooking and cleaning. At the end of it you just have a tiny fraction to spare toward hobbies. Productive hobbies usually win out – things like exercising, things that have a tangible benefit.
Pursuing activities with harder-to-pinpoint benefits, such as learning piano or exploring watercolors, tends to get left by the wayside. Exercising is quantifiable – doing so will help you live a longer, healthier life. Practicing piano? Less quantifiable, more ethereal. Because of this, we tend to de-value it. But art is deeper, richer. It’s an activity that can make you really feel like you. It’s maybe even more valuable than practical hobbies.
Retirement is one big postponement. All of these hobbies, all of these non-productive activities, you’ll get to them when you’re 65.
This is incredibly risky. You might not be alive at 65. You just never know. You could get cancer. You could get hit by a bus. This is life we’re talking about. For all you know, it’s the only one you’ve got. Isn’t it a gamble to postpone precious life experiences for decades?
If you are alive at 65, that’s no guarantee you’ll be in perfect health. You could be grappling with chronic illness, joint pain, carpal tunnel, any number of things.
And if you’re alive and healthy at 65, there’s no guarantee you’ll have money. Pensions aren’t 100%, and most people don’t have them – only 13% of Americans do. Most people don’t have any savings, either.
The worst-case scenario is that you’re working just enough to get by at a career you don’t care about, only to get stuck in that career indefinitely because you’re unable to afford retirement.
Let’s assume the best-case scenario. You maintain excellent physical fitness, consume the healthiest foods in the world, practice stress-reduction techniques and good sleep hygiene, and limit alcohol consumption. You’re fit and healthy even at an older age. You’re ready to take on the world! Congratulations, my friend. You made it to retirement and will be able to enjoy it fully.
But why not enjoy all those things (health, wealth, etc.) before you retire?
The idea of retirement is coupled with an unsettling question:
If you want to retire, are you actually doing meaningful work you love?
I’m incredibly passionate about the work I do. I get a thrill from it. Teaching piano to people all over the world, writing about it and making videos? It’s great. It’s challenging. There are a lot of tech things I’ve had to learn. Who would’ve known I’d be learning about coding and automated email sequences? About Chopin and ConvertKit?
But – and this is a big BUT – the best thing about my work is that I don’t know what I’ll be doing in 10, 20, 30 years from now. I teach on the internet, and it’s anyone’s guess what the internet landscape will be in a decade and beyond. I’ll probably have to learn a whole new set of skills. I might not even be teaching piano.
Some people would point to that unpredictability and call it a downside, but I disagree. Loving what I do – without knowing exactly what I’ll be doing in the future – means I’ll always love what I do.
It I was making piano videos for 30 years straight, I’d understand retirement. I’d definitely want a break from that. 30 years is a long time to do anything.
I think that’s one reason people switch jobs so much – the average person goes through 15 jobs in their working life. Most of us can’t stomach the idea of doing the same thing forever. We crave new experiences because new experiences bring us alive and make us more interesting. For many people, that involves hopping around the job market until retirement time, when they can finally stop the hopping.
If you love what you do, and what you do is a fluid thing, then wouldn’t you want to keep doing it indefinitely? Wouldn’t you want to be contributing in the ways you’re best-suited even in your 70s, 80s, 90s? Wouldn’t you want to keep sharing your gifts with people, making the world a better place?
I love writing and I can’t imagine putting the pen down. Of course, it was a pen when I was a child and teenager, evolved into a typepad from my teen years to now, and who knows what writing will look like in 20 years.
I love playing piano and exploring new repertoire. Pianos will almost definitely continue to exist beyond my lifetime, but the way we consume music might change drastically. There will be new genres emerging. Maybe less people will be interested in piano as time goes on as we wade deeper and deeper into the synthetic pool. Or maybe piano playing will undergo a renaissance in the future with people craving a more organic musical experience.
Luckily I also love teaching. So even if people start setting fires to pianos, there are other skills I have that I can use to earn a living.
Maybe that’s the riskiest thing of all with the 9-5/retirement coin – you’re putting all your eggs in one basket. A career is great until the market changes, until higher-ups decide you’re expendable.
Some careers aren’t going anywhere, sure. We’ll always need nurses and teachers. And we’ll probably always pay them chump change despite the indispensability of their work.
But even for the stablest of career paths, there’s still a distinct lack of freedom. If you’re a teacher, you’re doing essentially the same thing for 30 years. Different kids, different classrooms, but the same work. Even the most passionate teacher would want a break from that.
Circling back around to the original point, then, if you want to retire, doesn’t that imply that your work isn’t deeply fulfilling? If your work was deeply fulfilling, why would you want to retire?
Or maybe it was fulfilling, but after doing it for 30 years you’re done with it?
Work, then, needs to be fulfilling AND novel. It needs to provide value to others while also giving us a rich tapestry of new experiences. This is the kind of work no one would want to retire from.
Which leads me to my third objection with retirement.
My husband is a teacher and plays with the 9-5/retirement coin daily. We have discussions like what you’re reading in this blog post all the time.
He enjoys his work and finds fulfillment in it. Despite the fact that his income potential is limited, despite the fact that he has almost no control over his schedule, despite the fact that he has a boss and co-workers and isn’t always able to make autonomous decisions, he likes it. It baffles me, but enough people do it – there must be something to it.
Here’s my biggest issue with conventional careers. What if you want some time off? What if you want to go live in India for a year? What if you want to have sabbaticals every five years or so? What if you want to go on an impromptu vacation? What if you want to spend a month taking an intensive course on creating bonsai trees? What if that Spanish class you really want to take is only available at 11am every Tuesday?
Conventional careers force you to wait until retirement to do these things. Want to travel to India? Cool, do it when you’re 65 (55 if you started young). You don’t have the freedom or flexibility to live your life as it happens, to explore your hobbies and passions as they bubble to the surface. You can only watch the bubbles form and pop and think, “I’ll get to that later.”
And then your youth is gone.
I’ve worked conventional jobs before. I was a waitress, a popcorn peddler, I chopped veggies in a catering kitchen. In all of these jobs I had no control over my schedule. It was suffocating. How do people do it? I think about this often. Really, how?
Is the trade-off – financial security – really so worth it?
Most people I talk to tell me that their job is a necessity. They need their work to live. But is that really true? Or does it just seem true because the alternative would be really, really hard?
Losing financial security to pursue what you really, really love? Yeah that’s hard. But it’s also doable. So saying your job is a necessity is really just a good excuse.
What if you could create financial security without sacrificing all of your time, without having to postpone big pleasures until retirement?
This is the “what if” I’ve been asking since I was a teenager.
I would rather live with little and be the captain of my own ship, than to have wealth with time constraints. If choosing between money or freedom, I’ll choose freedom every time.
It’s worked for me so far. My twenties were spent having crappy apartments and big adventures, pursuing meaningful hobbies while my peers were buying houses.
But people who have things are afraid to lose them. When you have little, you have little to lose. I was able to take more risks in my twenties because of that. I’ve experienced a life sans-luxury. With secondhand everything. But with enough.
When you live with little, what you come to realize is that money isn’t really that important. It’s a means to an end, not a pinnacle to achieve. Even with little money you can still have rich, wonderful experiences. Some of my best memories happened when I was broke. Friends, family, art and books. It’s all free.
Now, in my thirties, things are starting to even out in my peer group. I make more money. And I’m really starting to come into my own potential. Skills I’ve been building for a decade are starting to pay off.
The kind of life where you work 40-60 hours a week at a lukewarm, time-restricted career and save up all the big adventures for retirement is a life I reject. It is not the only way.
And who knows – maybe next year I’ll take my first big step into exploring that freedom I’ve built for myself with a year-long gallivant across the globe.
I will never retire. But I will never have a career that I want to retire from. I will never work back-breaking hours and sacrifice the relationships that mean the most to me. I will never sacrifice the hobbies that mean the most to me. I will never value money above time.
I will never subscribe to a “someday” of retirement when that “someday” could be next year if I simply lived my life differently.