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Proposition: Early Retirement is Selfish
Old 12-13-2007, 06:36 PM   #1
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Proposition: Early Retirement is Selfish

Or: why your friends and family don’t want you to retire early.

A few days ago I made the comment that early retirement is selfish, and this naturally provoked a harsh response around here! I’ve generally backed off of this position in the past because I’m not interested in a long internet debate. I do think, however, that some people might not be aware that while they are excited about their prospects for early retirement, their friends, family and neighbors will generally not be. Even if you disagree with me that ER is selfish, most people you know will not, and you should be prepared for that. Personally, I think it is healthier to acknowledge that ER is something that you are doing for yourself that may very well be somewhat detrimental to others, and make peace with that.

I want to get straight what I mean by retirement. Technically you can say things like “Bob retired from his job as a lawyer to teach starving children in Africa,” or “Bob retired early from his job as a mover after his eighth heart attack left him unable to lift heavy objects.” The ER we are generally discussing around here is someone who is perfectly able to work deciding to leave their job in order to pursue “leisure” activities. We talk about surfing, fishing, traveling, but very little about finding the most socially valuable ways to spend all this free time. (For example there is this thread on the joys of lazyness. http://www.early-retirement.org/forums/f29/you-lazier-retirement-31377.html Note the dissenter is someone who retired at 62.) Even kids are generally discussed in negative light around here – as an obstacle to ER.

In an old thread Nords and Ted discussed the example of Ben Franklin that illustrates what I’m talking about. He’s an exemplary citizen who “retired early.” Or did he? While Ben didn’t live his life for the pursuit of money – he left his lucrative printing business at age 42 and didn’t patent many of his inventions, but rather “donated” them to the public good – he never “retired” in any conventional sit-around-and-play-golf sort of sense of the word, but was very active throughout his life in science, politics, and writing. Without his contributions to the founding of this country we would all be poorer off.

Even Dominguez, who wrote “Your Money or Your Life,” is a similar, but less dramatic example, of someone who “retired” without really retiring. It would be a lot more accurate to say he was an author and public speaker (though he didn’t take money) and not retired.

If you are leaving your job to pursue a higher calling then I think it is misleading to say you are “retiring” and you can avoid the common negative reaction by just saying that you are becoming a priest or teacher or parent or working for the ACLU or whatever moves you. The FI part of FIRE is much more important than the RE part.
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Old 12-13-2007, 06:36 PM   #2
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The clearest evidence that ER is perceived as selfish comes from the reaction that most people give when they find out someone is doing it. Our society has a work ethic, and the leisure class is viewed with disfavor; whether they are rich or just extremely frugal. Sloth is even one of the seven deadly sins. This has been discussed many times, and I won’t dwell on it.

http://www.early-retirement.org/forums/f29/how-do-you-deal-envy-hostility-er-14802.html
http://www.early-retirement.org/forums/f30/retiring-before-parents-16793.html
http://www.early-retirement.org/forums/f27/keeping-er-secret-17531.html
http://www.early-retirement.org/forums/f29/fi-down-low-20973.html
http://www.early-retirement.org/forums/f27/retirement-guilt-22307.html
http://www.early-retirement.org/forums/f28/what-women-want-24815.html
http://www.early-retirement.org/forums/f28/does-anyone-feel-jealousy-friends-family-others-25688.html
http://www.early-retirement.org/forums/f28/ours-hidden-existence-26677.html
http://www.early-retirement.org/forums/f30/i-don-t-know-whether-offended-more-determined-31473.html
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Old 12-13-2007, 06:37 PM   #3
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Now, I’ve claimed not just that people think that ER is selfish, but that they are, at least partly, correct. ER is not evil or horrible, but it is selfish. Why? Don’t I get to do whatever I want? Doesn’t my not working just free up a job for someone else? Well, no.

People have responsibilities beyond themselves. Around here when the subject of helping out children, parents, relatives or strangers comes up most people seem to think that it is great to get the monkey off your back and think only of yourself. If that’s your view, or if you are a follower of Ayn Rand, then so be it. Again, keep in mind that, thankfully, most people will disagree with you.

In particular, you are often letting down your spouse by retiring. Your spouse may have stayed out of the workforce for years or have a much lower paying job. They may have always lived under the assumption that you were going to provide for them. When you come out of the blue and say that they need to cut back on their standard of living so that you can fish more, they may naturally feel that you are reneging on your side of the bargain.

So, what if you don’t have any children, spouses, or parents? What then? Why is there a general work ethic? Let me put it this way: do you enjoy parks, the protection of the military, your car, the roads on which you drive, the food you eat, movies or television, not having to fix your own sink? You would have none of those things but for the labor of others. Sure, you pay for them, but the value you get is much greater than the amount you pay. In economics these types of effects are called externalities or consumer surplus (depending on the beneficiary). Your friends and family probably aren’t thinking in these precise terms, but their instinct that society benefits when you work, and loses when you don’t, is a sound one.

I don’t want to get into a huge debate, and I may or may not be able to respond to comments here, but I want to mention briefly come common false dichotomies. “So you’re saying no matter how morally repugnant my job is it’s better than quitting it?” No, I’m not. “So you’re saying I’m just a slave and should be forced to work until I drop?” No, not that either. “So you’re saying I should have spent all my money like most people and be trapped in the rat race?” It is probably easier for people to forgive conspicuous consumption than conspicuous sloth because they can identify with it better, but still, no, I’m not saying that.

There is a middle ground. It’s OK to be selfish sometimes. We all live with a balance of selfish and selfless actions. Just be aware that early retirement is likely to be one of the selfish ones.
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Old 12-13-2007, 06:45 PM   #4
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I hope you feel better now that you have purged yourself.
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Old 12-13-2007, 06:46 PM   #5
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And your point?
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Old 12-13-2007, 06:52 PM   #6
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Ted bongo2, feel free to keep right on working just as long as you'd like. How's that for an unselfish philosophy?
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Old 12-13-2007, 06:52 PM   #7
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Originally Posted by bongo2 View Post
There is a middle ground. It’s OK to be selfish sometimes. We all live with a balance of selfish and selfless actions. Just be aware that early retirement is likely to be one of the selfish ones.
No problem with that. Many of the decisions of my life were self-ish ones. I chose who to marry not the person who needed most to be married. I chose the house to buy not the one that needed most to be bought.
etc etc. So my early retirement is just another in the long list of self-ish decisions. I didn't ask permission nor do I seek approval.

Life is good. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
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Old 12-13-2007, 06:55 PM   #8
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I think I could probably find a way to argue that most everything we do is "selfish".
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Old 12-13-2007, 06:57 PM   #9
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I don’t want to get into a huge debate...
Yeah, right...
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Old 12-13-2007, 06:59 PM   #10
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Bongo,
You've written a lot without saying anything. You don't think it's selfish for people to stop working, as long as they are still doing something useful. Well, the same can be said of them >>before<< they stop working. So, the working for money has nothing to do with it. Your three postings boil down to: Doing things strictly for yourself is selfish." I guess nobody could argue with that, since that;s what "selfish" means, right?

More fundamental questions:
1) Is there anything morally wrong with doing things strictly for yourself, or is one expected to toil for the benefit of others relentlessly? (See "ant" for what that looks like)
2) What is wrong with someone who can't let another person enjoy himself without hopping onto the high horse?

"Everyone should be doing more for everyone else, and I'm saying it so I'm better. Now, all of you turn off your computers and go work in a soup kitchen!"

Last thought: Capitalism works because people want money. They want money to have a better standard of living for themselves and their families. A comfortable retirement (early or not) is a primary motivating factor to people's industriousness and thrift. Take away that motivation and you'll damage capitalism. What are ya, a COMMUNIST!
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Old 12-13-2007, 07:01 PM   #11
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A few days ago I made the comment that early retirement is selfish, and this naturally provoked a harsh response around here! I’ve generally backed off of this position in the past because I’m not interested in a long internet debate.
"Not interested", and so you repost another longwinded post on the same subject---in an early retirement forum.

Why do you even hang around a forum like this if you are "not interested"? Why do you hang around with folks you describe as "selfish"? You like to be around folks you don't "like"?
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Old 12-13-2007, 07:06 PM   #12
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I'm selfish and lazy. But I was that way when I was working too. ER has nothing to do with it.

Ask yourself why people work. Most of them are motivated at least partly by that income thing. FI removes the need for that aspect of work.

Some people love their job, but ask them why. It often has to with respect as a "domain expert." Rarely anything to do with selflessness, at least in my experience.

I'm sure there are many people who are unselfish and dedicate their lives to helping the poor and sick without any need for either an income or respect. What motivates them? Probably having a positive impact on the lives of others. I'm glad those people exist, but we're not all motivated by a love for humanity. Those of us who are shouldn't see ER as an impediment.

So the two things are unrelated. QED.
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Old 12-13-2007, 07:35 PM   #13
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I think it depends. To stick up for Bongo, I admit that I have said in the past that retiring early is essentially a selfish decision.

My early retirement decision was selfish, I retired because I just did not want to work any more. I had a serious case of burn out that I tried to address by working part time. But the new found freedom enticed me to retire fully.

I have a number of relatives that depend on me to one degree or another. They would be economically better off if I did not retire. However, I did try to at least consider my duty to family and tried to have a large enough nest egg to be able to help out my family to some extent. I have not had to say no to any requests as of yet. Before retiring, I talked to another relative who is fairly well off and she is willing to also help out our family in case of emergency. This was a major relief to me. Also, by retiring I was able to spend time as the family chauffeur shuttling people back and forth to the big city when my grand niece was in the hospital for a year. I was able to be there for my niece and her mother. However, I can envision situations where larger demands for money could occur and I will not be able to meet them.

So, the decision was selfish in that it was for me and no one else. It also may inhibit me from doing my duty to family. But I tried to alleviate some of that concern by having some back up plans.

The work ethic issue is not troublesome for me. I had a strong work ethic for quite a few years. The only issue troublesome to me is whether I can meet the duties I believe I have.

Other people here have talked about retiring early with healthy portfolios and as a result are able to spend more time with their children. The live frugally and one even mentioned that he was able to give more to charity this year than any year he was working. Hard to see that as selfish.
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Old 12-13-2007, 07:53 PM   #14
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People. You all did your bit. You gave the full measure at work and were compensated for it. No one was robbed ,cheated or murdered in the acquisition of your wealth. You then managed your funds, inherited or earned, so that you could bail out and live your life the way you want to. You are not on the dole so you owe no one any explanation for your decision to FIRE. Go forth and be happy. bongo2 get a life.
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Old 12-13-2007, 08:03 PM   #15
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People. You all did your bit. You gave the full measure at work and were compensated for it. No one was robbed ,cheated or murdered in the acquisition of your wealth. You then managed your funds, inherited or earned, so that you could bail out and live your life the way you want to. You are not on the dole so you owe no one any explanation for your decision to FIRE. Go forth and be happy. bongo2 get a life.
I agree with bongo2 that most people will find ER to be selfish, but given the opportunity I bet they'd do it. Whether it is actually selfish rather than just perceived to be depends on individual circumstances. Of course you might say that its selfish wrt society as you're taking your earning power and skills out of the work pool. I intend to ride my bike and build a house, so I won't be selfish as far as my local bike shop or architect is concerned.
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Old 12-13-2007, 08:04 PM   #16
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My retirement was a noble sacrifice. I took an early retirement (and a serious reduction in pension) to save someone else from losing a job in a RIF (reduction in force).

That person might have been a parent/spouse/religious person and so more needy/deserving than a divorced/childfree/atheist/hermit such as myself.
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Old 12-13-2007, 08:09 PM   #17
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Other people here have talked about retiring early with healthy portfolios and as a result are able to spend more time with their children. The live frugally and one even mentioned that he was able to give more to charity this year than any year he was working. Hard to see that as selfish.
Depends on your definition of selfish, I guess. Everybody I know is motivated primarily by self interest. Even when we do things for our kids or charity. In those cases, we're motivated by our selfish genes or feel-good endorphins.

But if you define "selfish" as chasing good things for yourself even when it means more harm to others than good for you, then probably none of us ERs are selfish. And that's when selfish has bad connotations: when your enjoyment comes at somebody else's expense.
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Old 12-13-2007, 08:12 PM   #18
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I believe that most people are naturally selfish. Selfishness has gotten a bad rap in our society because the modern world can carry it to absurd lengths (huge salaries, dictatorial powers, etc.) OK it's an ancient problem -- also called "pride." I'm a selfish person, yet in retirement I've found some chance to do "unselfish" things: pick up trash from the street near my house; volunteer at a local hotline, visit the ill. I don't do these things because they are altruistic, but because I LIKE DOING THEM! It makes me feel good to be of help ... but I don't sacrifice my life for others (not yet at least.) Who the hell is John Galt anyway
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Old 12-13-2007, 08:17 PM   #19
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You folks have failed to notice that Bongo is leading us out of our unproductive stupor into a useful activity that is nevertheless compatible with ER.

He is quite good with words and ideas, and he stimulates us to fight with him. While prior to this we were wondering what the hell to do with our evening stretching out in front of us, we now have a worthy task. This is not easy to find in our retiree world. Cockfights require invitations; there are no strip clubs in most of our neighborhoods. How to fill the time before bed? Read while the wife knits? Tidy up the kitchen while DH putters in his wood shop?

Now we can fight with Bongo, and willy-nilly we are transformed into people who are producing entertainment and perhaps annoyance for lurkers, other posters, you name it. After all, people on TV get a lot of money for less interesting things than this.

Of course we could be out helping the less fortunate, but take it from one who has on occasion tried this, it only works in truly small doses. Almost homeopathically small. Because a little commented thing about needy people is that they are very annoying. Too much annoyance is just that, too much. But a thread like this can deliver annoyance in mild, pleasurable doses. People who might be familiar with bondage and the like will immediately understand what I am saying.

So please continue your clever abuse, Mr. Bongo2. We understand your goodness.
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Old 12-13-2007, 08:17 PM   #20
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Nice try, Bongo, but "self interest" shouldn't be confused with the pejorative context of "selfish"-- and certainly not with society's envy or even jealousy.

Most people's reactions come from their own lack of opportunity or planning or discipline. A true friend would be happy for the ER-to-be instead of complaining about selfish witholding of services.

I feel that I provided enough benefit to the country during my 24 years of service to be able to enjoy at least the next 24 at my own pace. Ah, and I'm still paying my fair share of taxes to support all those social services that I used to be providing.

BTW my spouse's pension exceeds mine. No one's cutting back on the standards around here-- we live a frugal life, not a deprived one.

But feel free to live your life according to whoever's standards you wish to substitute for your own.
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