Early Retirement as opposed to Meaningful Work

I’ve rudely pinched much of the title from BripBlap’s Early Retirement or Meaningful Work? post. It makes for interesting reading, and his post contains many of the things people say about work – that good work does far more than pay the rent, it gives you a structure and meaning. Steve gives this concept its head in the last paragraph –

But I have realized that my real dream is not early retirement, as I often thought it was.  I dreamed of days of leisure.  I’ve had those days now, as I’ve been unemployed.  I don’t want leisure.  I want work with meaning.  My real dream is finding meaningful work, and it should be everyone’s dream.

Hmm, well I have to take issue with the last few words. Obviously if meaningful work is Steve’s dream, who am I to gain-say that, have at it, but there’s no reason it has to be everyone’s dream. Perhaps I am unusual in this, but I hear the distant drum of the Calvinist work ethic here, and I don’t like it.

Now for sure the initial impetus for me shooting for early retirement is that I find work sucks, both in what my own job has become specifically and what work has become in the post Thatcher-Reagan era. I have no personal experience of working pre Thatcher, but I saw the background radiation of the post-war employer/employee contract that preceded it in three of the four companies I have worked for, and the quality of my job has gradually degraded as it becomes more management-by-numbers rather than leadership by common sense. Indeed what has particularly changed over the last three decades is that managerialism has taken over from leadership, grinding out innovation and inspiration across the board. However, that’s a rant for a different day.

Early retirement, for me, is all about power. It’s not about meaning. Financial independence, for me, is about being able to meet my needs and a modicum of wants from resources that are mine and under my control. I want nobody to have power over my time, and I want to be at nobody’s beck and call.

The modern world of work is about debt slavery – borrow money for college, for a house, and while you are in hock you are owned by your job. I have served nearly my entire time with that, and I am buying my freedom, to be and to live according to the light of my own lamps, to chart a course guided by my own compass. Of course I will accommodate people or goals that are special to me, but the Company isn’t special to me. I work so that I get money, and I use some of that money to buy my freedom from debt slavery.

Having now eliminated all debts, the debt slavery I am now buying myself out of is the slavery of future incurred debts. Once I have my running costs and some spare I am safe from that.

Too many people conflate early retirement with not working. For me early retirement is not having to work. It is the freedom to do something, but to be able to flip the bird if anybody requires me to do something that conflicts with my own aims and desires in life. Freedom doesn’t have to be exercised – I might choose to go along with it if there is a greater good, but there shouldn’t be a coercive hold ‘do this or else we can make you lose your home’.

People get more awkward and cantankerous as they get older, because they accumulate power, and have seen stupid things lead to crap too many times before.You lose the starry-eyed belief that it is different this time, because it very rarely is. Many things have transformed the work environment over the years, but human nature has remained the same.

I have seen enough management initiatives, and TQM, MBWA, investing in people, corporate social responsibility, employee engagement (funnily never employer engagement) and similar claptrap to last me a lifetime. It’s all rubbish. What Western corporations are in dire need of at this time is competent leadership by top brass that actually gives a damn about the company, its customers and the people that work for it, rather than simply maximizing the size of their own remuneration package. We have never discovered a way of  linking pay to performance in a way that doesn’t produce pathological behaviour, particularly at the top. The recent financial crisis is merely the results of this pathology writ large, across many sectors. It is endemic in our large companies, and they can only continue to turn a profit by grinding out efficiency in the layers below senior management, increase in scale or reduce workforce costs by outsourcing etc.

And I’m tired of working in systems run by chancers, yes. But though retirement can mean not working, it doesn’t have to mean not working. I was at RSPB Minsmere recently – the welcome desk is staffed by volunteers, as is the shop and tea room. Looking at these people, I would say most were retired, and they include a fair proportion of early retirees, indeed some faces were younger than me.

I presume none of them had to be there, they chose to be there. They had early retirement and, by evidence of the fact that they were there, meaningful work. The two are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, I would say that if meaningful work is what you crave, there’s a lot to be said for early retirement – it opens up opportunities for meaningful work that you couldn’t otherwise afford to take, such as those RSPB positions.

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