Posted by Tim Stobbs on May 12, 2010
So there is another round of thought running around the blog world about is early retirement selfish (see here and here)? The answer of course is: yes! Yet not in a bad way. I think everyone is inherently selfish to a degree. How much varies from person to person, but in the end we all are a bit. The issue with early retirement is people for some reason assume you are no longer a productive member of society and thus try to put that selfish bit in a negative light.
The issue of course is life isn’t so simple. Let’s examine a few things. Is buying a new TV selfish? Yes, I think we could argue no one would die without a TV so it isn’t a need. So if that is true then buying a big house is selfish, and so is buying a new car every five years. Yet when you choose not to buy the new TV, the big house or the new cars is that selfish by choosing to save the money instead? On the one hand is you are just keeping some savings for emergencies or regular retirement I think people would consider it more prudent planning than being selfish. Yet if that is the case, where is the line between prudent planning and being selfish? If you retire one year early are you selfish? Likely not, so why is doing it five, ten or even twenty years any different? In reality there is no difference other than the difference you build in your mind. So why do you feel there is a difference? I’ll take a stab at this, you feel guilty about retiring early.
Which brings us back to the concept of a productive member of society. I think for some reason people assume that early retirement means doing nothing and thus you are not productive. Yet that is a false assumption. People are never doing nothing. Kids who are five and under don’t attend school and don’t have a job, so in some people’s definitions of productive would be seen to be doing nothing. Yet in reality we know small kids are learning machines who are figuring out balance and gross motor control, fine motor control, language skills, defining their environment, learning object permanence and literally thousands of other little things that you take for granted every day of your life. There are definitely not doing nothing. The same applies to early retirees, they might appear on the surface to be doing much but the reality is they are learning gardening or a new language, helping others, starting small business, driving up your property value by picking up trash on their morning walk…you get the idea. If you try to call early retirees unproductive members of society you might as well extend that to small kids or even artists since they don’t produce things that people need or pay enough tax. The label of unproductive is really, again, just in your head.
So after deconstructing those two concepts it easy to see early retirement is only selfish (in a bad way) and unproductive if you want it to be. Yes early retirement will always be partly motivated by selfish goals, but that doesn’t mean it is a bad goal. Early retirees do have the difficultly of adjusting to find more meaning in their life than just their career. Most working people don’t have to think of how they contribute to the world, they just assume it is their job. Which is sort of silly when you consider how many useless paper pushing jobs there are out in the workplace. It’s entirely possible by retiring early you will contribute more to society than you ever did as a working stiff.
So in the end you need to find your own answer to: why do you want to retire early? I won’t judge the answer, but you will in our own mind. If you get it wrong, then you will feel guilty. So be honest with yourself and really think about the question.
So why do you want to retire early? In my case, I want more time to learn and write. How about you?