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Golden Handcuffs - a tougher form of the "one more year" syndrome.
Old 08-21-2008, 02:19 PM   #1
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Golden Handcuffs - a tougher form of the "one more year" syndrome.

Hello all,

I’m about 50, single, no dependents, with a very secure job, a satisfactory middle-class income, no debt, solid savings sufficient for a modest early retirement, and expectations of a reliable pension and reasonably-low cost health benefits. I’m set for life, right? Well, it seems I suffer from the “Golden Handcuffs” syndrome – a particularly irksome version of the “one more year” syndrome.

I’m a tenured Professor. Don’t cry for me, but tenure doesn’t mean what it once did – I’m still evaluated formally and frequently, and I would suffer if I slacked off on the grants and publications treadmill, etc. But with a little care and effort, my position offers about as much security as can reasonably be hoped for these days. It’s also a position that offers considerable freedom plus even a little bit of status and privilege.

I earned my Ph.D. and became a Professor only recently. The harrowing Death March of earning a Ph.D. later in life in a cut-throat top-tier program, obtaining a good tenure-track position, and achieving tenure in an atmosphere of competition and highly capricious politics has left me feeling burned out. I succeeded well and quickly, but at a very substantial personal and financial price that still haunts me. Even worse, to my dismay I’ve found that the ideals that I had believed my institution stood for are all too often a pious sham covering a voracious, impersonal machine that rules via Stalinist-era tactics of fear and excesses of implacable power.

I do gain satisfaction from my job, and I do value it a great deal. But, due to 10+ years of stress from the Ph.D. plus tenure death-march, and the vaporization of my naïveté, early retirement calls to me constantly. This is terribly ironic because, with tenure, I’ve finally reached a point where I am substantially free of the need to fight. There are rather few hurdles left in my career that I care to pursue. There are many demands, but to a degree my time is under my control, it’s theoretically possible for me to take entire summers off, I maintain a budget for travel to conferences, etc., so the job is far from tough. My goals are to do some interesting research, graduate some more Ph.D. and M.S. students, and in general try to mentor some knowledge, wisdom and common sense into our next generation. I’d like to avoid political games (very difficult) and make the position pay off on my terms from here on out.

Now, I know how you all love financial porn: I’ve always been an extremely aggressive saver (the primary source of my net worth), and my investments are conservative (currently ~40% stocks, ~20% bonds, ~40% cash equivalents), mostly unsheltered, in broad-based, low-cost index funds. I was expecting my savings to reach the tidy milestone of $2M this year. Now that looks uncertain but, combined with a small pension (~20k, ill-indexed), low-cost health benefits, eligibility for social security, and a modest but comfortable lifestyle (costing ~$40k after taxes, though I'd prefer to pad that by $20k+ in retirement for travel, etc.) including a paid-off house, I suppose there is little to stop me from FIRE at 50.

I am eligible to take early retirement within a few months. The pension at that age would be ~$20k, well below my basic needs, and it would decline over time as it is poorly indexed to inflation, but it comes with fairly low-cost health insurance and my savings would make up the difference. My mostly frugal spending habits could probably be maintained for life without much risk. However, with great freedom comes great temptation, e.g., for extended travel, better toys, etc., and I'd prefer considerable padding for that kind of thing. The point where my pension alone would reasonably cover my needs would be about age 55, and by then I’d gain a satisfying edge in financial security and freedom. If I worked to age 60, the pension plus additional savings would exceed my expected needs and by my current standards I’d be well-off for life. One additional point is that, given the security of my position, committing to working somewhat longer allows me to relax my frugal ways starting now.

Although my job offers me a fair degree of freedom, I’d greatly enjoy even more: FIRE. A part of me would also enjoy saying goodbye to the Machine. My colleagues would be shocked – NO-ONE with tenure retires early! This is because I’d be throwing out the reward for all of my struggles: a decade or so in a comfortable and privileged position. The benefits and security of my job and its rapidly enhancing pension (it would roughly quadruple over the next 10 years) is something that is hard to throw away just to spite the Machine (which would not care in the slightest in any event).

So, if I can shake off a bit more of the burn-out, etc., and as long as I can keep the psychic cost/benefit ratio tilted in my favor, I could see working until 55 or 60. Still, I remain terribly conflicted. As I believe I’m F.I. at my current spending level, the “one more year” syndrome starts now. By a rough calculation, giving up 10 years of income and enhanced pension benefits means giving up on a 40-50% improvement in my financial standard of living, starting now, all of which would be gravy. I also wonder how well I would do after giving up the mantle of my position, and there’s no turning back. But R.E. also means gaining 10 years of enhanced freedom during the youngest years of the rest of my life, however long that may be.

Golden handcuffs are a blessing and a curse, but they are especially irksome when one already has the keys to unlock them.

Thank you for reading.
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Old 08-21-2008, 02:46 PM   #2
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Hello all,

I’m about 50, single, no dependents, with a very secure job, a satisfactory middle-class income, no debt, solid savings sufficient for a modest early retirement, and expectations of a reliable pension and reasonably-low cost health benefits. I’m set for life, right? Well, it seems I suffer from the “Golden Handcuffs” syndrome – a particularly irksome version of the “one more year” syndrome. I’m a tenured Professor....

Golden handcuffs are a blessing and a curse, but they are especially irksome when one already has the keys to unlock them.

Thank you for reading.
And thank you for posting! It is not often that we get such a juicy situation to "analyze"!

Get a new girlfriend/boyfriend. Just see to it that s/he is not in your department and is over 18 and is not your student or on the protected list for any other reason.

Drink some quality booze. Moderate usage of drugs and/or alcohol is harmless and actually enhances one’s adjustment to life.

Give a seminar on a cruise ship. Bask in the adulation. Let your cruise students buy you drinks and adore your erudition. Cast off any lingering Marxism/Leninism except as it might help you in your dating game. You are a winner! Love yourself! Accept the love of others! Especially attractive others!

Start dressing like an Italian Baron, or Contessa if you are a woman. Buy a Porsche 911, or if you find that you like the Italian thing, a Ferrari. If you are female get massages and spa treatments at least weekly, and maybe some plastic surgery. Then ponder that you would be giving all this up if you foolishly let a little burnout send you scuttling. So what if it costs a lot- you are on the verge of walking away from a very posh situation. Pamper yourself!

Life will be so sweet that you will want to assure yourself of longevity-and to this end nothing is recommended as highly as The Borgnine Process.

Whatever you do, don't quit! You have one of the few jobs that is almost always better than being retired.

Ha
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Old 08-21-2008, 02:57 PM   #3
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Wow, what a response. That was terrifically encouraging! Thank you!
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Old 08-21-2008, 02:59 PM   #4
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Hi Grep,
Assuming you are computer prof from the name... This is the one thing I tell my own father all the time... and I fear he will never listen.... "Do not die at your desk working.... it is a bad way to go."

This is the only life that you get. If you are single and have no other responsibilities, then you might want to start thinking of other options. Can the university give you a leave of absence for say a year? Maybe retire... see how you like it, and then have the option to go back.
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Old 08-21-2008, 03:09 PM   #5
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Armor99,

I had a colleague literally die at his desk a few doors down from me, at about my age. I also had one of my own students die suddenly, which was extremely shocking and painful. I'm very aware of my own mortality.

I'm eligible for occasional sabbaticals, but they must be working ones. I could request an unpaid leave of absence for personal reasons, but it's very unlikely to be granted.

One thought I have is that I really can take the summers off. It means giving up certain research grants, summer salary, and my graduate students would suffer without me (meaning they would have fun and not make progress towards their degrees), but I can theoretically do it. That's a sort of semi-retirement that might make a big difference.
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Old 08-21-2008, 03:13 PM   #6
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Grep:

If you search this forum you will find many posts exploring the angst between cutting out now versus extra working/waiting for some additional monetary reward.

I personally can relate to your issue as I have considered it myself. My personal decision is to keep working so that I can have more at a later date. I found that when I realized that I didn't have to work anymore that the work itself became much more tolerable - even fun.

This is such a personal decision, only you can make it.
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Old 08-21-2008, 03:14 PM   #7
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Grep, we have some parallels and some differences. I'm in academics too, on the medical side, and as you know they are different worlds. But the gruelling road to full professorship, section head, then department chair etc. takes its toll. In my case, I find that the less satisfying parts of my job (mostly administrative people-management in a strong-willed culture) has taken a ever-growing percentage of my time (outlasted my enemies, I guess).

Meanwhile, my compensation and benefits are such that I can make major gains in my retirement savings each year. It's the One-More-Year Syndrome - Handcuff Variant.

So my response is to semi-retire into a part-time position seeing patients (always satsifying, if hectic) somewhere less than half-time.

Have you considered a semi-retirement strategy? I didn't catch what discipline you are in but maybe retirement followed by some ad hoc teaching, consulting, or even some unrelated work would smooth the transition.
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As if you didn't know..If the above message contains medical content, it's NOT intended as advice, and may not be accurate, applicable or sufficient. Don't rely on it for any purpose. Consult your own doctor for all medical advice.
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Old 08-21-2008, 03:18 PM   #8
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Any chance for "phased retirement"? As in gradually decrease your hours worked by 20% a year for 5 years until you are at 0% at the end of year 5. I've collaborated with some professors that did this and they found it a good way to transition themselves out while still remaining active. And I think they were able to count the 5 year period towards their pension. Not sure if this is an option bureaucratically or practically in your department.
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Old 08-21-2008, 03:23 PM   #9
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Do you have the option to purchase years of service in your pension plan. That might get you closer to where you want to be a lot sooner.
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Old 08-21-2008, 03:35 PM   #10
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I say keep working but take the summers off at least until 55 then reassess. You seem to be in a situation where you can significantly increase your lifestyle while still working and what you lose in investment earnings you gain in pension. So buy that Porsche you've always wanted or go on that 10 week cruise next summer.
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Old 08-21-2008, 03:54 PM   #11
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Masterblaster:

The ramp up to tenure was excruciating. Tenure is a very tough "up or out" situation which can end your entire career. If I had missed out on that, having a pension and health benefits at all would have been touch-and go. I'm far, far more relaxed now. I'll be even more relaxed when I reach the point that I can retire vs. quit.

Rich:

I've consulted on and off for much of my life. That's how I made much of my early savings. I still do a little, but only brief and easy work. The times have moved on and I'm not interested in being in the true trenches of consulting any more.

For me, the major gains of working come from the enhanced pension. My salary does not make a very big dent on my savings these days.

I'll be up for full professor in a few years, and due to entering academia later in life, I intend that to be my last professional goal. My Department Chair has claimed that I'll be in his shoes one day, but I beg to disagree. I would not enjoy the administrative side of academia at all!

Given the pension situation, I tend to think that my "semi-retirement" strategy involves slowly becoming less aggressive at work where acceptable, while maximizing the potential for personal time such as summers.

Thank you.
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Old 08-21-2008, 03:59 PM   #12
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Purchasing pension time is not possible for me.

A reduction in work is theoretically possible, but it's a very rare situation at my institution. Since my reasons are purely personal it would likely only be negotiated at a considerable disadvantage to me, e.g., teach one less class but take a 40% cut in salary. Then it would remain very hard to say no to everything else I'm expected to do at a full-time level - committee work, reviews, etc.
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Old 08-21-2008, 04:28 PM   #13
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Don't give any weight to the "very substantial personal and financial price that still haunts me". Your past decisions cannot be undone, and should not be permitted to influence your future decisions (except to the extent that they provide learning experiences). See further Harry Browne, How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World.

Sometimes it can be helpful to make up a list of 'pros and cons'. It sounds like these are your reasons for wanting to quit:
  • mortality (don't want to die on the job);
  • desire for more freedom (to travel, etc.);
  • already have "solid savings sufficient for a modest early retirement" (no financial need to stay);
  • "atmosphere of competition and highly capricious politics has left (you) feeling burned out" (high stress);
  • ideals triumphed by bureaucracy (disillusionment);
  • desire to "spite the Machine".
And these are your reasons for wanting to stay:
  • "interesting research ... and in general try to mentor some knowledge, wisdom and common sense into our next generation" (job facilitaties professional goals);
  • pension will improve over time (financial incentives);
  • "(your) colleagues would be shocked";
  • status and privilege (I count, I am a Professor).
A few random comments:

If you are throughly sick of politics (and you know what they say about academic politics: the reason they are so vicious is that so little is at stake!), fine. You should be able to withdraw yourself to a large extent without having to quit. Yes it will be difficult, but it is possible. Your prize grad student was treated unfairly by the committee? Well, there is lot of unfairness in the world, and she had better get used to it. Anyway you are not her parent. Your chairman insists that you serve on that subcommittee? Attend most (not all) of the meetings, but spend the time daydreaming about sex or whatever else amuses you (hint: study the Wilt series by Tom Sharpe, or some of Kingley Amis' novels, for guidance in this area). What are they going to do? You are tenured, they can't fire you unless you do something crazy.

I don't know what field you work in, but if you are committed to research you can find a way to do it as a retiree ... you almost certainly don't need a formal position with the University to accomplish decent research.

If you seriously want to mentor, you are probably much better off pursuing a volunteer position with young children than worrying about people in their mid 20's and 30's. Grad students are already too far along life's path to significantly benefit from your influence, or anyone else's. Anyway, what is it you're proposing to tell them? Academia stinks? The pursuit of a Ph.D. and tenure is a "harrowing Death March"? The rewards aren't worth the sacrifice? Universities are "a pious sham covering a voracious, impersonal machine that rules via Stalinist-era tactics of fear and excesses of implacable power"? No young person wants to hear such negativity, even if it's true.

You should give no weight to what your colleagues will think (you are not a lemming). Similiarly, you should give no weight to what the administration might think. As you yourself said, there is no point in quitting out of spite. You will not be missed by the University, and your gesture would be an empty one.

The freedom that your job currently affords is nothing compared to the freedom that retirement offers.

The possible loss of status and prestige is meaningless. Again, what do you care what strangers think? Presumably your friends and family like you (and will go on doing so) because of your happy personality, generous nature, etc., rather than because you are a tenured professor. And for those who care about such trivia, the status of a former professor is not much different from a current professor (cf. Timothy Leary).

Ultimately, it sounds like a purely financial decision to me.

The fact that your finances will improve the longer you delay retirement is not unique to academia, or to employees with pensions for that matter. Ultimately, the same logic applies to all of us. But only you can draw the line between reasonable prudence and unwarranted greed.
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Old 08-21-2008, 04:40 PM   #14
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Same situation, similar quandary. Decided that the 22nd was the day and they piled on more bennies. How much is enough is way tough.

Still at the job, still thinking retirement is the way to go. Who knows? Die at the desk and you lose.
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Old 08-21-2008, 05:30 PM   #15
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Wow, what a response. That was terrifically encouraging! Thank you!
Hey, far better to light just one little candle...
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Old 08-21-2008, 05:54 PM   #16
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You seem to have a lock on your finances -- congratulations!

Given your articulate letter and academic background, however, I wonder if you've thought about how you would satisfy your intellectual needs after FIRE? You're clearly a very smart guy and whatever else a college lacks, it does have a community of other smart people, with varying interests and expertise, with whom to interact.

Further, your career track has been very grueling and you're justifiably burned out, but a lot of people would never have set foot on that track in the first place. There must be something in you that seeks a challenge and revels in overcoming it.

I think you're idea of REALLY taking summers off is a great one. During that time you could be traveling, etc. but also figuring out how you'd keep your mind satisfied and engaged once you stop working, whenever that might be.
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Old 08-21-2008, 06:09 PM   #17
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Since at least part of your frustration seems to stem from your institution, what options are there in changing that element.
My BIL went from Chair of School at Penn State to same job at ASU--big bump in bucks, promo from Asst to Full plus he finally could satiate his golf habit.
As tight as quality of talent is in higher ed, I suspect you might surprised of the interest. In the process of making the change you could also negotiate the structure to liberate your summers and contractually provide a sabatical semester/year at your desired frequency. Anything keeping you at your place?
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Is More Better ?
Old 08-21-2008, 06:14 PM   #18
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Is More Better ?

Some timeless thoughts on killing yourself just to have more...

< From "Your Money or Your Life">

We build our working lives on this myth of more. Our expectation is to make more money as the years go on. We will get more responsibility and more perks as we move up in our field. Eventually, we hope, we will have more possessions, more prestige and more respect from our community. We become habituated to expecting ever more of ourselves and ever more from the world. But rather than satisfaction, our experience is that the more we have - the more we want - and the less content we are with the status quo.

More is better; this is the motto that drives us. It's the motto that leads us to trade in our car every three years, buy new clothes for every event and every season, get a bigger and better house every time we can afford it and upgrade everything from our stereo systems to our lawn mowers simply because some new automatic widget has been introduced. The frantic pursuit of more ends up working against the very ends it's designed to serve, security and fulfillment.

If you live for having it all, then what you have is never enough. In an environment of more is better, "enough" is like the horizon, always receding. You lose the ability to identify that point of sufficiency at which you can stop.

If more is better then what I have is not enough. Even when I do get the "more" I was convinced would make life better, the "more" I now have still isn't enough. But hope spings eternal. If I could only get more, then... and so on and so on we go. We get deeper in debt and often deeper in despair. The "more" that was supposed to make life better can never be enough.
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Old 08-21-2008, 06:27 PM   #19
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Milton,

Very interesting commentary. Here are some reactions:

The “colleagues would be shocked” goes in the pro category, not the cons, but as you say, it’s not important anyway. I recognize that I’d be forgotten in two weeks, if that. Many of my colleagues are great people, but as you say the greatest of them respect others for universal attributes such as grace and honesty and not merely for academic or career success.

You are correct that I can withdraw from much of the politics, etc., at this point. Almost my only motivation for staying in the political game (attending faculty meetings, etc.) is that if everyone gives up in disgust, which half of us have done, then there is that much less hope for any of us, especially untenured faculty. I can even become stubborn about committee work, etc., though I’ve found that cheerfully volunteering for a few easier tasks while feigning incompetence in more onerous assignments works well enough so far.

I joined Academia since I’d done all I needed to do professionally with my own hands, yet I still wanted a challenge, and I thought it was time to give back to others and promote change through the next generation. I mentor students in this age group since it’s what I know how to do well. For example, they do need to hear the facts about academia vs. other options from me. Very few of my colleagues can offer a balanced view since they have never lived the alternatives, and most of them are too busy defending their own choices. Also, from my own experience as a youth, I know that students are in an unusually-unstable and susceptible point in their lives. Applying just the right push in just the right direction can have truly profound results that last a lifetime. My first Ph.D. student will never cease to thank me for giving him that presciently-correct push.

Finally, the over-all impression I have from your commentary is that few things really matter greatly in working life, that nothing in working life matters in comparison to personal freedom, and that more personal freedom is always better. I’d certainly agree if one can seize that freedom and achieve greater satisfactions and returns.

Thank you.
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Old 08-21-2008, 06:27 PM   #20
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Originally Posted by MasterBlaster View Post
Some timeless thoughts on killing yourself just to have more...

< From "Your Money or Your Life">

We build our working lives on this myth of more. Our expectation is to make more money as the years go on. We will get more responsibility and more perks as we move up in our field. Eventually, we hope, we will have more possessions, more prestiege and more respect from our community. We become habituated to expecting ever more of ourselves and ever more from the world. But rather than satisfaction, our experience is that the more we have - the more we want - and the less content we are with the status quo.

More is better; this is the motto that drives us. It's the motto that leads us to trade in our car every three years, buy new clothes for every event and every season, get a bigger and better house every time we can afford it and upgrade everything from our stereo systems to our lawn mowers simply because some new automatic widget has been introduced. The frantic pursuit of more ends up working against the very ends it's designed to serve, security and fulfillment.

If you live for having it all, then what you have is never enough. In an environmenrt of more is better, "enough" is like the horizon, always receding. You lose the ability to identify that point of sufficiency at which you can stop.

If more is better then what I have is not enough. Even when I do get the "more" I was convinced would make life better, the "more" I now have still isn't enough. But hope spings eternal. If I could only get more, then... and so on and so on we go. We get deeper in debt and often deeper in despair. The "more" that was supposed to make life better can never be enough.
Now MB, would you rather be Grep with his nice life or that poor schmuck Joe Dominguez living in a group home and sifting glass out of peanut butter?

In his summers he could teach in Europe or Asia. He could sample different cultures while he has classy connections and recommendations, and for pay, all the while staying in nice rooms instead of being sampled by the bedbugs in hostels.

I hope you guys aren't able to talk him (for ease I will assume he is a he) into an obvious mistake. All he needs is perspective. A tenured professor is retired on the job, plus he lives in nice surroundings, has plenty of money and is (however foolishly) looked up to by many.

In addition to my other suggestions, I recommend a viewing of the original Marlene Dietrich version of The Blue Angel.

Ha
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