Rethinking Retirement

The following is a post I wrote for another blog I started, but it is extremely relevant to our decision to backpack around the world for a year.

Young Dave is a bright, hard-working guy who just finished high school.  He has all the tools for success.  But what is“success”?  The standard model:

  • graduate from post-secondary education
  • get a good job
  • get married and have kids
  • save enough for retirement – as early as possible
  • retire and enjoy the good life

So, Dave does well in school, earning himself an MBA and lands a “good job” – i.e. stable with good pay, but not particularly interesting.

Dave gets married, buys a house, has a few kids.  The best years of his life are spent working long hours but he accumulates a bunch of nice stuff: a series of nice cars, a home theatre in his man-cave . . . and he takes the wife and kids to Disneyland every few years for some much-needed “family time”.

All the while, Dave is responsible and saves 10% of his paycheque for retirement, just like he knows he should.

Dave gets older.  By the time he retires at age 60, his kids have left home to start lives of their own.  Even though he knew it was coming – even looked forward to it – he’s a little uncomfortable with all the free time he has, the empty house, the lack of productive work.

To fill the void, Dave books a few cruises, even buys a brand new sports car.  He dabbles in a few hobbies he used to think were ridiculous.  Weeks and months go by and Dave is overcome by sadness that the retirement he looked forward to feels empty and pointless.

Finally, on a whim, Old Dave gets a job at the local hardware store stocking shelves and helping customers.  He can’t believe how happy he is.  Even though it is completely different from the retirement he envisioned, Dave knows he will keep this job for as long as his health allows.

This is success.  Dave did it right.  No unemployment, no devastating illness, no crushing divorce.

But also no passion, no risk, no adventure.

It’s like Dave followed the path of “success” that our society had already defined – and he did it well – but he never made it his own.  Dave did a great job of maintaining the status quo.

What did Dave miss?

  • he spent the best/healthiest years of his life in school or working
  • he worked in order to retire – not because the work was rewarding in and of itself
  • he sacrificed time with his family and pursuit of other passions –  for work and money
  • he worked to accumulate “things” – none of which actually contribute to fulfillment
  • when he reached his goal of “retirement”, it turned out to be the wrong goal all along

In spite of having all the appearances of success, in many ways Dave’s life was a failure.  It was based on the wrong premises.  Stuff does not make us happy.  Even leisure does not make us happy.

What makes us happy is shared experiences with people we care about;  creative pursuits; doing good things for other people, not ourselves.

I think it is about time we question our definition of “success”.  The life path of education – work – retirement is pretty restrictive.

What could Dave have done differently?

  • Find a job that is inspiring, that doesn’t feel like work.  When work is fulfilling for its own sake, why would you even want to retire?  It might not pay as well, but you will want to do it for longer.
  • Keep the “good but uninspiring” job, but work less.  Trade money for time.  Then use that time wisely to pursue relationships and experiences, not stuff.
  • Take mini-retirements.  Save 25% of your pay so that you can take a year off every 4 years.  Many employers have programs like this.

The implicit contract of the standard model of retirement is that we forego doing what we really want to now so that we can do it later.  Delayed gratification.  But there are a few major problems with this.

First of all, you can’t get now back.  The years when your kids are at home, loving every minute they have with you, hanging on your every word.  Years when you have the health and vitality to pursue a big business idea.  Years when your marriage could be growing stronger – or weaker.  We must realize the incredibly high price we are paying for the gift we are giving our future self: retirement.

Second, as Dave found out, we may not enjoy that gift nearly as much as we thought we would.  I know many people who wish they’d pursued a risky entrepreneurial venture they were passionate about, or gone on some crazy travel adventure while they were young and healthy.  There are countless more who would trade anything for more time with their kids when they were young.

Third, shit happens.  We might not even make it to retirement.

And so, at 41 years old I am questioning my own life path.  I am Dave.  I have been responsible and “successful”.  But that is not enough.  I want more.

I don’t regret being Dave up until now, but I don’t want to die like Dave.  There are other options.

I am happy to trade money for time.

I finally understand that “nice stuff” has nothing whatsoever to do with happiness.

I also realize that trading a cushy retirement for amazing experiences with the most important people in my life now is a good trade.

So, I have decided to be a little abnormal.  Even though it doesn’t fit with the retirement savings plan, a few weeks ago my wife and I decided it’s time for a mini-retirement.  We are going to take the kids out of school for a year and backpack around the world.

Do we know what we’re doing? Not really.  Will it be hard work?  Yes.  Will it be an adventure of a lifetime?  Hell yeah.

3 Comments

  1. Hello! I saw your recent comment on GoCurryCracker. What your wrote there could have been written by me.

    We took our own travel adventure when our son was born. My wife has a little-used perk in her contract that allows 18-months of unpaid leave after having a kid with your job guaranteed at the end of it. I quit my job. We bought a big truck and 5th wheel RV and saw 22 states with our 2 young kids. We even managed to miss winter!

    It’s so great to see more and more families like yours and mine enjoying time together. The idea of mini-retirements and/or “patchwork income” is pretty intriguing.

    Best wishes on your great journey and enjoy.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Ryan! I didn’t know anyone who had done anything like this, but the magic of the interweb is getting us in contact with other families like yours. We LOVE hearing about how other families are making their particular variety of family adventure work. There are a million excuses not to do it, of course, but now that we are out here they seem more lame than ever! There is nothing better we could be doing for our family right now than this. Thanks again for coming by our little blog.

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