Work is but a stage of Life

A human life has seasons – it is written in the cycle of life, we aren’t Immortals, dying through accident alone. The gateways between these seasons was often marked by rites of passage in earlier generations, but the modern First World has few rites of passage.

But life is still a journey. You can close your eyes and pretend it isn’t, but like all parody the Trainspotting song gets its edge because it does contain a kernel of truth. Many of our life choices are taken on autopilot. Some of this lack of deliberation is necessary – there simply are some important stages that the newborn has to master in the difficult progress from mewling and puking infant to the arbitrary stage of 18 we call adult. There is a dynamic tension in all of us that balances preserving the comfortable status quo against the effort necessary to challenge old forms, to break free of constraints, challenge habits and develop as human beings.

Consumerism can help you with all of these bar one
Consumerism can help you with all of these bar one

Consumerism doesn’t do meaning well, and if you look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, the one at the very top, self-actualisation, is the one element that you can’t buy or outsource, by definition. Consumerism becomes increasingly ersatz the higher up the pyramid you go, but it doesn’t run out of road until the apex.

Sorry, Paris, but Daddy's billions still ain't gonna buy you to the top of that pyramid. Some jobs you have to do yourself. Time is on you side, so you can get away with 'Dress cute' for now...
Sorry, Paris, but Daddy’s billions still ain’t gonna buy you to the top of that pyramid. Some jobs you have to do yourself. Time is on you side, so you can get away with ‘Dress cute‘ for now…

In this journey through the stages of life, often you cannot progress until you surrender old forms. Thus it is that the parents of a newborn must surrender some of the hedonism of the DINKY lifestyle. Many years later tears well up in the mother’s eyes as she waves her son goodbye as he steps into the world to become his own man. It is a transition for him, but also for her too, we have no shared Western narrative for maiden/mother/crone[ref]Crone is terribly perjorative in a youth-obsessed world, I mean it in the way referred to in Wikipedia as  “a Croning is a ritual rite of passage era of wisdom, freedom, and personal power”[/ref] or the masculine equivalent boy/man/sage or wizard[ref]I’m sad to observe that fewer of my gender seem to pass into the wizard stage, though it is hardly as if the mythic landscape of Western culture lacks the Gandalf/Luke Skywalker role model, and RPGs seem full of it. We aren’t getting lost because we’re in a pathless land[/ref].

Consumerism doesn’t favour introspection and a search of meaning, and it actively discourages personal growth, because it always needs you to look outwards for satisfaction of your wants. There’s nothing to sell, otherwise 🙂 MMM summed this up well as the Poisonous Pitfall of Piss-Poor Lifestyle Planning. Look at how much is sold to young and middle aged men to encourage the puer aeternus who “covets independence and freedom, chafes at boundaries and limits, and tends to find any restriction intolerable”.

look - no other cars get in your way if you are in one of these
look – no other cars get in your way if you are in one of these

Indeed, an awful lot of ultra-luxury seems to be marketed towards these ideals of independence and freedom as expressed in Stuff. The irony doesn’t escape me that some of the aims of Financial Independence are seeking to live life without boundaries and limits, finding restrictions (on one’s time) intolerable 😉

In many of the myths of Europe, there is the story of the hero starting his journey as a young man, going out in the world to earn his fortune. Precisely how we have turned this, in an age of relative richness, into working for The Man until you drop is a puzzle. Some of this is because  because of the endless aspiration to Stuff and Experiences. Some of it is because we have engineered certain kinds of inequality into our economy such that an increasing number of people will never have the opportunity to decide what Enough looks like because their lifetime earnings won’t be enough to compete with the credit-inflated value of some necessities.

And so I offer to the FI community that making your fortune is good, as a first step, but the hero of our myths of old does not simply make his fortune and then sit on it, or play cards into his dotage, In the modern world work is often the way to making your fortune, but once you have this, then its work is done. To progress the  traveller on the journey of life must release old forms. For most people working for The Man, their legacy as a human being will not be their work[ref]If you’re a Nobel prizewinner or otherwise advance human knowledge or art in your work, maybe. Tim Berners-Lee was working for the Man, part of his legacy is you can read this[/ref]. People who retire often believe they will be sorely missed but most organisations self-heal rapidly.

Thoroughly unprepared we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still we take this step with the false presupposition that our truths and ideals will serve us as hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening be a lie.

Carl Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul

As the slave grows accustomed to his chains, so it seems the wheel grows accustomed to the shape of the rail for thirty of forty years, perhaps even fifty if we count the guided track of the education system in childhood. For long a path is trodden, but as Jung indicated, it slowly begins to lose validity.

The Queen's Tower at Imperial College
The Queen’s Tower at Imperial College

The seeker of financial independence speeds up the process. Recently I passed through Imperial College where I did my first degree in Physics many years ago. The alumnus office provided me and Mrs Ermine with a fine cup of coffee gratis and a place to rest a little. It’s  strange to think that when I last passed this way here I had maximum human capital and zero financial capital. Over the ensuing thirty years I exchanged that human capital for financial capital – in the words of our fairy tales, I made my fortune.

Now the value of my human capital is zero – nobody is going to pay me more or less because I have a Physics degree. It has become worthless, but it has done its job. Surrender and redemption are part of the cycle of life. Work is now an old form for me. In many of the earlier posts on here I ascribe leaving work early to the world of work changing. It did, but now I also see that I changed – things and ways of doing things that used to be acceptable to me became less acceptable. I resisted the change, because I had a conventional viewpoint that I would make this change at 60 (which was the normal retirement age for The Firm). Resisting change in personal development always causes pain, but here I took the pain up front. Exchanging my human capital for financial capital doesn’t trouble me, I don’t hanker after the ‘meaning’ of work. It was a phase of life, it is done, and I’m with Carl Jung there. I want to deepen, to develop, to understand more. I will probably affect other people, and share some of the journey. It’s more open-ended than the world of work, and that is a good thing.

If they are successful, and if they know how to know that they are successful, every striver for financial independence must one day ask themselves

What do you want now?

If the answer is ‘more of the same’ then you may have to tarry awhile at this waystation of Life. Retiring is a change, and to do it well you must change. The change is hard, because you have followed the track of ‘work’ and the meaning and setting that gave you. Change comes easier to the young – your change into work was easier than perhaps your change out of it. Little wonder, then, that so often the new retiree seeks to replicate the comforting rituals of work.

I see it a lot, and it puzzles me. Mistersquirrel calls some of it out with

Have viable alternative pursuits. One of the side-effects of working in a regular job is that there isn’t actually much time left over to do things.

Now self-development is a strange thing – everybody comes to it by the shortest distance they can manage, even if that path is messy and indirect. Many get stuck somewhere, because the process of knowing who you are, what you stand for and what you value is not easy. M Scott Peck said

The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.

Work is a stage of life for some people. Retiring is a challenge, and I would estimate that of the people I’ve observed[ref]most of these are from my parents generation, being an early retiree myself, I don’t have much data from my own peer group[/ref] more than half get stuck because they cannot surrender the work-self that they built up over decades. They still value themselves by what they did. Even the Ermine retains Chartered Engineer status at a modest cost, because I haven’t yet come to the conclusion that I will never do engineering professionally[ref]I use professionally in the sense of ‘for money’ as opposed to looking for a job in it, which I view as extremely unlikely[/ref] again.

Only once you surrender the old truths and ideals can you further the process of individuation and enter the next phase of life as Carl Jung intimated. People’s paths are many, and there is no one True Way, but I choose to go forwards, to surrender the old to gain new insights in the game of Life.



15 thoughts on “Work is but a stage of Life”

  1. I stayed in the trenches probably 5 years longer than you did. That’s probably because of Einstein’s hypothesis that chemists are dumber than physicists.
    However I bought into Maslow’s hierarchy fairly early on in life and I think in a way that helped me and my wife live beneath our means and be mindful of the higher gifts.
    Leaving the working world behind is a change but after 10 years it doesn’t seem all that much of a wrench – certainly no worse than leaving university and starting into it.
    What I do defines me a fair bit, what I got paid for less so.


  2. Another top post Ermine.

    That video was a great find! And how very appropriate for the PF/FI sphere – will we all chortle smugly at the reference to the electric tin opener and the three piece suite on HP (probably way, way, too UK for our US cousins).

    I’d take slight issue with you that “…the one at the very top, self-actualization, is the one element that you can’t buy”. I’m not sure that consumerism can buy much beyond Physiological or Safety. Surely money can’t buy love?!

    YES to the point about reaching FI and then wondering – this is exactly where my head is at right now. I won’t ever have to work for The Man again… but so what?! What, exactly is next. Statistically, I’ll have another 40 years to play with – so what’s to be done? Finding that purpose is tremendously hard (I think it’s probably easier for couples with children as it gives them a focus for their energies). This is the difficult path that must be walked.

    When I update my little guidebook (probably post-Christmas in the bleak midwinter) I will add a chapter to discuss “The Change” as it’s so important. I guess back in the day when people did retire, they were so physically and emotionally exhausted that they didn’t do much then died shortly after. But to give up work, and you make an excellent point about how we’re still defined by our jobs – “what do you do?” being a standard opening question when meeting new people, requires a new response and a new way of thinking.

    btw: doesn’t “DINKY” sound so cute and retro now like “YUPPIE”. Aaah, big mobile phones and power shoulder pads, it all seemed so fun back then – even Harry Enfield’s “Loadsamoney” character was funny. I suppose we probably all felt like we had a chance unlike now!


  3. @mistersquirrel after I retired and moved to Almonte I volunteered in a small coffee firm that sold FairTrade products. I worked in production and helped them write an Organic Products proposal for certification. But I was really just unpaid labour.
    Later on I retired completely and now I do what I want. Learned Linux, now repair computers and networks for seniors, write a blog, play with the grandchildren. It’s all good.


  4. @Ray It’s interesting that a few years makes the change look less of a wrench – maybe I am suffering from perspective distortion here, though I have seen many people never find their way again. I take inspiration from your example!

    @mistersquirrel somewhat to my shame I fear I am a lot more cynical than you are, it isn’t how I would like to be, but so be it. To wit –

    Buying love? I think these at least support my case, not necessarily individually because I don’t know the details but May/December isn’t unknown, and usually December has the financial assets 😉

    Esteem? Man, that’s what consumerism does. Money is crystallised power, and in services there are few power kicks bigger than saying jump and other people do just that, and the rich know it. See Wolf of Wall Street etc. In Stuff, well you always have to have the biggest yacht, and possibly that is the problem we sometimes have with the uber-rich. They don’t need the resources for their intrinsic utility, but for the willy-waving. And when it comes to willy-waving, only the biggest and best will do, so you have a consumptive arms race…

    DINKY – well somebody once called me out and said the 1970s wanted their vocab back 😉 I presume they were a Millenial so not tuned to the taxonomy of the decades. I’m surprised that The Man isn’t considered antediluvian but heck, if Raptitude can riff so well with the concept it can be rehabilitated.


  5. @ermine The wrench of leaving work was probably mitigated by the fact that we made massive changes in our lives simultaneously with it. In a 10 month period our daughter got married and moved away, we both retired, we sold our home and moved to a small town close to her. Then soon after my wife’s sister got seriously ill and eventually passed away. Then both my parents passed away in a 3 month period. In the meantime 3 grandkids were born. It’s hard to see how we would cope with all that if we were still working. Sometimes a job just gets in the way of life.


  6. @ermine – you old cynic you! But I concede there’s plenty of older gents with younger ladies as their side, so clearly the OldRich + YoungPretty seems to work!
    The Raptitude article was a good read too


  7. As I walk along the Bois de Boulogne
    With an independent air
    You can hear the girls declare
    “He must be a Millionaire.”
    You can hear them sigh and wish to die,
    You can see them wink the other eye
    At the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo.


  8. an altogether great post, full of both insight & reflection…. certainly it was a seismic shift moving from being DINKYs to parents of 2, & now we are both PTEWKs (you read it here first, as i just made it up: Part Time Employed with Kids) we are firmly in another stage of life.

    at this stage it’s hard to imagine life beyond the kids though.

    The Private Eye column about Wupert & Wendy was worth the subscription fee alone last year by the way.


  9. Indeed. It’s taken my husband and I a few years to sort out what we really want from life, but I think we’ve figured it out now. And, our goal to reach FI and move to a rural homestead has nothing to do with consumerism. It has everything to do with pursuing the clearest distillation of life, which for us is working outdoors, in the woods, together. Thank you for this post.


  10. What a marvellous, wonderful, wise post! Thankyou, thankyou.

    I’m at my childhood home on leave sitting at the kitchen table having a cup of tea with my 89 year old widower father. So much of what you’ve said echoes things he has told me over the years.

    I’m 51 now, looking to quit this working stage of life in a year or so. As the day approaches I look forward to it yet try to be realistic about how hard it will be. Many colleagues have extended their contracts to 65. One reason why I never did that (apart from not having had multiple wives) was the realisation that difficult changes don’t get easier with age.

    Thank you again. I’ve been lurking here for some time.


  11. I think my approach will be slightly different. Instead of working and saving hard to retire early, I think I’ll simply work fewer hours throughout my career.

    Easier said than done though!


  12. Very thoughtful, interesting post ermine.

    I’ve found packing in work quite difficult in lots of unexpected ways over the last couple of years. Contrary to lots of PF narratives (Sages telling young’uns how to live) I actually found it useful to consider my position from my younger self’s perspective. Trying to identify what I thought I was getting from work and at what point in my working life that began was instructive.
    I’ve no clue what “I’m going to do next”, my mid twenties self wonders why I thought it mattered.


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