There have been recent violent protests about raising the retirement age in France from 62 to 64, and some time ago we shared the phenomenon on the other end of the spectrum, the F.I.R.E. movement that looks to enable retirement in your 30s or 40s. But both the protests and F.I.R.E. should be provoking the same question for any Gent: what do I think retirement looks like? And is that still valid?
Retirement Is a Modern Invention
For the majority of human existence, there hasn’t been any such thing as “retirement.” There was “getting old” and “moving in with the kids,” but it’s a fairly new idea to work until a certain arbitrary age while simultaneously setting aside a pile of money which you hope doesn’t disappear in a financial shock, then stopping work to live off that pile of money until death. Indeed, some of the protestors questioned in France talked about the importance of “not waiting to enjoy life” as part of why they were fighting the reforms to the pension law.
But you should be able to spot a couple problems with these ideas:
- You don’t actually enjoy what you do. Who’s ever heard of stopping something you love just because you hit a certain age? When you enjoy what you do, time is never an issue, whether that’s hours in the day or number of birthdays hit.
- You have to wait until retirement to “enjoy your life.” This assumes, first of all, that you will be alive and healthy at whatever age you plan to retire at, when we know that life doesn’t check with us about our plans. It also assumes that prior to retirement, you are not yet “enjoying life” but simply “preparing to enjoy life.” Not exactly a thrilling motivator.
Recent Market Shocks and Antifragility
The mathematical backing for the “Retire at X Age” school of thought is also not solid. Anyone who can look back at the last 36 months can tell you that we’ve had a number of shocks. While a younger Gent might (understandably) say to himself that he’s got plenty of years for the market to “correct” and gain back the current “losses” in his portfolio, what does an older Gent do? Just accept the losses and retire as planned anyway? Or defer retirement until such time as the calculations make sense again, which could be another decade or more?
We should have learned many things from the last 36 months, not least of which was that many of our assumptions about our world, our country, our communities, and even our neighbors, were wrong. That means we should adjust our current and future plans accordingly. And it means accepting “antifragile” thinking, knowing that shocks can and will come regularly, and planning for them, not hoping they will never come. Only a fool assumes that market conditions will be “as planned” on the day he decides to retire.
Remote work has given many the chance to spend time with family that they’ve never had before, and they’ve decided that they’re never going “back to normal.” They’ve found a new, better, balanced normal that has reframed work as simply part of life, not the main goal of it. That new normal has also started to reshape ideas about retirement.
So how can we rethink retirement? Firstly, by rethinking work. Is work a drudgery that you struggle to get through, counting the days until the weekend, when you get to “enjoy your life”? Or is it something you enjoy and care about, and that fits into your life just as your family, friends, and interests do? Is it something that can adjust and scale back as you get older instead of something that you simply stop cold turkey on X date?
The second way we can rethink retirement is by pushing back against the “big pile of money” narrative. There are really not many things necessary to live decently in your older years. The media won’t let you believe that, because that wouldn’t allow them to run scare stories about how you won’t have enough. But sit down with those you love and look at what really matters. If endless cruising and travel are what you’ve got planned, yes, you’re going to need boatloads of money for that. But if time with family and friends and enjoying the routines of daily life without the same expectations of work from when you were younger is what you find attractive, there are many options available to you, whether that might mean taking to the road for portions of the year to see the country, or moving in with family, as has been a transhistorical, cross-cultural way of life for most of mankind’s existence.
Make your retirement yours, not what everyone else says it should be.