The Unspoken Problem with Early Retirement

Last updated on January 22nd, 2015

ERERearly retirementAh…the American dream.

You know the promise. Work hard, and anything you want can be yours. White picket fences, brand new cars, fine foods, and …. corporate slavery? What a dream.

Surely by now you’ve probably realized that the original American dream is complete crock.

While the American dream does promise success, the dirty bugger didn’t mention the 60 hour work week, the excruciating climb up the corporate ladder, and the sacrifice of all things that make a person happy.

And so a new American dream has been born out of disgust for the work-til-65-to-pay-for-crap-you-don’t-need original.

That dream? Early retirement.

The Dream

Early retirement promises relief from the original American dream. It promises an extended sabbatical from the tireless job you’ve dedicated your life to. It’s an escape from the rat race, and a first class ticket on the plane to the rest of your beautiful life.

If you’re new to the concept, it looks just like it sounds. It means “retiring” before the traditional age of 65. It’s made possible through frugality, a decent paying job, and the ability to invest in appreciating assets. Some have been able to save between $500,000 and $1,000,000 in their thirties and call it quits in the corporate world. They hope that this nest egg will last 40-60 years, until death.

Upon retirement, early retirees are supposed to live the dream; work, stress, and obligation free. The equivalent of a permanent weekend on vacation.

But underneath those promises of relaxation and freedom lies the dark underbelly of early retirement that is full of dangers like depression, loss of purpose, and maybe even a midlife crisis.

The Problem

The American Psychological Association wrote a fantastic article published in January of 2014 called, “Retiring minds want to know. What’s the key to a smooth retirement?” (1)

In the article, the APA states that, ” retirees experience a ‘sugar rush’ of well-being and life satisfaction directly after retirement, followed by a sharp decline in happiness a few years later… most retirees experienced the rush-crash pattern regardless of the age they retired.”

Regardless of age, retirement is great for a while. There is nowhere to be, no deadlines, no stress, and no pressure to perform.

But after retirees settle into the new normal, what at first seemed like freedom, reveals itself as a new type of prison.

According to the Psychologist Jacquelyn B. James, PhD, of the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College, “people need to invest as much if not more time in their social or psychological portfolio planning before retirement, to figure out what makes them happy.”

It’s simply not enough to focus on building financial assets. Many of those people who retire just don’t know what to do with their time, and the whole experience is one giant ugly surprise.

After all, there is only so much reading, watching TV, shopping, traveling, and visiting friends that one person can handle. Once those activities are exhausted, what comes next is usually restlessness, closely followed by guilt for being unsatisfied in your retirement.

According to Robert Delamontagne, PhD, author of The Retiring Mind: How to Make the Psychological Transition to Retirement, “People can go through hell when they retire and they will never say a word about it, often because they are embarrassed…The cultural norm for retirement is that you are living the good life.”

Society says you should be living it up. You should be supremely happy in this period of life!

But this is often not the case.

Without some form of work to challenge and inspire you, life can become boring. And while work is often viewed as a means to an end, where the more you work the more glamorous your retirement, that’s not the whole story.

Work has deeper implications than a monthly paycheck and a 401k plan. Even though work is sometimes hard, exhausting, stressful, and frustrating, it can be an important part of a fulfilling life.

The Solution

There are numerous ways suggested by experts to counteract the feeling of useless in retirement, such as making new friends, volunteering, or spending a lot of time on a new hobby such as gardening or model airplane building.

But I don’t think this is sound advice for the type of individuals that achieve early retirement.

No, early retirees are motivated and driven. They obviously have goals and are dedicated to achieving them. I don’t think that scrapbooking and knitting are reasonable follow up acts to early retirement.

So what’s the answer? 

Find meaningful work.

This can include a project, career, or hobby that you can’t wait to get started on every day. The only requirement is to find something that makes you jump out of bed every morning.

Take it from Steve Jobs,

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.”

If at first you try something you think you’ll love, and it turns out that you don’t like it at all, that’s fine. The beauty of early retirement is that you’re free from having to work a job you hate just for the money, benefits, or retirement account.

Once you retire early, you will not only have the freedom to travel and see your friends and family more often, but you will also have the freedom to submerge yourself in work you find meaningful and fulfilling. You will finally have the freedom to follow your passion.

Once you find that passion, you’ll never have to worry about boredom, depression, or a midlife crisis during your retirement years, because you’ll never really retire. Instead, you’ll earn money doing something you enjoy. This leads to higher levels of happiness, which was the whole reason for retirement in the first place.

  1. Pingback: Are You Cut Out to be a Millionaire? | Cash Cow Couple

  2. Reply

    Hi Cashcowcouple,

    I like your post. I want to “retire early” means for me that I want to have enough income to make sure I can quit my day job and follow my true passions and transform my many hobbies into full time hobbies. I’m fortunate enough to be passionated by many things. Unfortunately I couldn’t realistically make an income out of those passions right now and I wouldn’t want to see those passions as a job anyway… they would lose all their attrait… That’s why I still keep my day job which I like anyway.

    But both of my parents are retired since 2013 and I saw the “sugar rush” and then the down… My dad is like me. He doesn’t have enough time in a day to do everything he likes to do. My mom, on the contrary, needs to see people and go out. If she’s alone, she feels depressed… And this puts a lot of pressure on me, on my dad, on her friends and other family members… Retirement is very hard for her but she doesn’t want to go back to a part time job either… ahah ☺

    I guess everybody is different but many people are like my mom… they are institutionnalized by the system… I’m a criminologist and I can tell you that we see that a lot with prisonners. Once they get their freedom back they don’t know what to do with it… They have a sugar rush at first and then… they often do stupid things and come back to prison… where they feel home in a way…


      • Jacob
      • October 6, 2014

      Excellent insight, Allan. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.

  3. Reply

    As Al Pacino said to Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface, “Ju need a hobby.”

    Something meaningful must replace “work for pay”—whether it is raising the kids, volunteering, traveling, owning a biz, whatever.

      • Jacob
      • September 3, 2014

      That’s often easier said than done. Work is the primary hobby of many people.

        • GRB57
        • March 2, 2016

        Great article and insight. It is true, people don’t talk about it, but retiring early has some ups and downs. For me, though I do have a lot of passions/interests/hobbies, I get to a point of paralyzis oftentimes during my long week full of lots of times for things to do as I wish. I feel it might come from not having a retired husband with me. Actually, he would love to see me working with a paycheck instead. This causes a lot of friction. Yet, when I think of that working world where most of the time we spent our most precious hours of the day struggling to perform, dealing with difficult people day in and day out, commuting long hours each day, and getting home exhausted and unable to think or focus on what I like to do, I can honestly say “I don’t miss it at all, nor do I want to repeat the same stupid behavior for the next 30 years of my life.” At some point you must say to yourself – enough is enough. Work is not a hobby for 90% of americans, it is slavery! Even the ones on the top report to someone and it is stressful to be on those chairs. I found that most of them are not themselves, they find a mold to fit and they follow it. I never wanted that path – so I never found a good fit. All this said, retirement is a choice as so many other parts of our lives. I make it my personal duty to learn about creating a retirement life that suits me. I dedicate time to the things I enjoy as I feel the muse take over. I am also involved in doing a bit of mission work – dresses for Dressing Girls Around The World. Writing poetry at times about my feelings, journaling, and so forth. My retirement started with the passing of my Father whom I was going to help heal from a major stroke he suffered. So, shifting to plan B (which didn’t exist yet) has been a challenge. I get depressed/sad but it is important not to dwell on these feelings. I find if I shift my thinking and do something fun, I’m able to move on to a more happy time for the day than if I dwell on my depression. I have even have two friends get angry at me because I don’t do as they say when it comes to planning. I’m sad to have a distance relationship with them, but retirement is my time to choose when I want to do things and what I want to do. People do not understand that too well. I think kindness and grace are required attitudes in this new journey – for others but greatly for ourselves. I must embrace the new me and enable that new me to evolved and be happy in the process. Good luck on your retirement! Enjoy each moment of it!!

  4. Pingback: Are You Cut Out to be a Millionaire? | Cash Cow Couple

  5. Reply

    I’m thankful that this is not a problem for me because I’m so interested in so many meaningful things. However, I do know that it is a common problem. Tim Ferriss talks about it in The 4-Hour Work Week, too. I think you have to know what type of person you are and consider what makes you happy and fulfilled before retiring.

  6. This is one of the reasons I never intend to give up some kind of work lifestyle entirely. I like having something to do, whether it’s a personal passion project or working for charity or just a laid back, simple job.

  7. My mantra is “work while still young”. I still envision myself as someone who can retire before I turn 50 and just enjoy life and spend the rest of my life with my beloved family. I’ve got a meaningful job which promises career growth and I think I can settle with until 50, I am hoping. I believe I am just happy that I’ve come across a combination of a job and passion at the same time.

  8. Pingback: Frankly Frugal Finance: Weekender Edition #6 | Frankly Frugal Finance

  9. Reply

    I have to admit that if I’m not careful I can even feel this way about vacation time. The first few days are *amazing* as you chill out, relax, sleep in and do all the things you’ve longed to do. Then after a while it becomes “normal” – you don’t quite appreciate it quite as much as in that first “honeymoon phase”. Then eventually, if you’re unlucky, things can start to get almost boring.

    While I certainly plan for early retirement, I don’t plan to just sit around doing nothing (well, not all the time, anyway). I have a whole list of other things I want to accomplish – early retirement will just give me the freedom to tick them off my bucket list.

    • Syed
    • August 15, 2014

    Very interesting topic. I feel both “traditional” retirement supporters and early retirement have valid points to stand on. I enjoy my job very much and have most of my investments in tax advantaged retirement accounts, so what incentive do I have to stop working early? If you’re still able to spend time with family and travel often, then there is no real hurry to retire. It’s all about what a person wants to achieve out of their life.

  10. Reply

    I think you’re right that early retirement is an opportunity to pursue what you’re passionate about and what makes you happy. When Mr. Frugalwoods and I retire early in a few years (at age 33 or so), we don’t plan on not working, we plan on working differently and on things we care about. We’ll be on a rural homestead, so it’ll be more “work” than ever before, but we won’t be constrained by 9-5 jobs that consume most of our time and are uninspiring. That’s what early retirement means to us, and I know it’s different for everyone. Thank you for this thoughtful piece!

    • Kipp
    • August 15, 2014

    I really like this article. I often think about what my life may be like with “early retirement” and honestly… I do want to work in some fashion. I just don’t know at what. So the excitement can come from doing new things and knowing that if it doesn’t work out, there is nothing wrong with it. Plus in-between those new projects/gigs/whatever I could have the opportunity to travel. I think early retirement affords me a balance in life that I desire. Less work and more play :).

    • Wade
    • August 14, 2014

    My goal is to “work” only as needed. Need to know basis only.

    This slightly bummed me out. But I’d like to try “early retirement” and see if I can beat the odds.

    A thought provoking post.

  11. Reply

    Early retirement is just a phrase thrown around for being free to do what you want with your time instead of being tied down to a day job because you need to pay your bills.

    I don’t think I could ever retire completely but then again I’m only 31, things could change by the time I’m 65. My aim is to be financially free within the next 7-10 years by having a passive income to cover my cost of living so I can follow my passion/s. In a sense that could be considered early retirement but I like to look at it as having a choice of whether to work, play, travel, learn, volunteer or sleep in till noon every day or change it up and do something different every day.

    • A Reader
    • August 13, 2014

    In a lot of the comments here, I find the premise of a perennial passion. Passions subside, you lose interest, that’s the natural flow of aging and living life.
    If your passion has held you for decades upon decades, more power to you, and I’m very happy for you, but you must take into account the drive, the potential, the satiety feeling, monotony and boredom, just to name a few, of the different individuals. Not everyone’s passion is going to last forever.
    @Ree Klein: Sure, you can give up worrying about your first group, but I hope you’re not being judgmental about them. If they’re happy, and that’s their way of life, then that’s that.

    • Reply

      You make a very important point! Happiness comes in all forms and I didn’t mean to pass judgment on anyone for living a life that brings them joy. I can see how you felt my comment conveyed such a sentiment. Thank you for having the guts to call it out 🙂

      I suppose my underlying message was that I needed to focus more on my own potential rather than being the cheerleader behind potential I saw in others. It’s much easier to hang your hat on someone else’s talent than it is to hone your own. It’s easier to blame than to shoulder personal responsibility. I don’t do that anymore…I’m holding myself accountable for realizing my own potential.

      As for passion to pursue a particular interest, I’ve been passionate about a lot of interests. Some fizzled, as you say, some didn’t pan out and some I’ve long held…they’re part of me. I agree with you that passion for one thing only is rare. I was merely trying to say that early retirement won’t be such a difficult transition for those who engage their passions.

      Love the conversation ~

      • Reply

        Most people who have commented on this post will be just fine in ER as they’ll be firmly in the motivated camp, they’ve bothered to start up a blog for one thing, whereas most people are just readers/consumers of blogs; it would be interesting to hear from more readers who are not other blog writers 🙂

        I think the majority of people may fall into the latter group (unmotivated to do their own work or find their own passion) though, even as much as a 90/10 split. I bet a lot of these once had that spark but the daily grind has gradually worn it away.

        I find work colleagues vaguely talk about wanting to quit working, if they won the lottery for example, but there isn’t much entrepreneurial spirit knocking about.

  12. Reply

    As long as I am working a job I really enjoy, I don’t think I’d ever retire too terribly early. My job gives me a feeling of being needed and is extremely rewarding. I also think I’ll always be writing until I am so old and brittle that I can no longer move my fingers.

  13. Reply

    I’ve had good fun discussing the topic of early retirement with older people. They simply couldn’t understand why anyone would want to quit working at age 35 and sit around for the rest of their lives. But early retirement is so much more than that. And thanks for sharing the Steve Jobs quote–that’s one of my favorites.

  14. Reply

    I think there are two types of people: those that are driven to learn, build and accomplish and those who aren’t. For a long time I thought everyone would be driven once they found their passion. But after years of seeing the “potential” in people, I found that so many don’t really care to explore and activate that potential. I’ve been so deeply saddened by that fact and felt it was such a waste.

    People in the first group will never “retire” in the classic sense even if retirement comes very early. It’s the people in the second group that will struggle. They don’t really want to find something to get passionate about because that would mean they have to put in effort to explore, learn and DO SOMETHING.

    I’ve given up on worrying about the second group and focus my attention on being in the first group! Great conversation post 🙂

  15. Reply

    I definitely believe that if nothing else early retirement affords us the time and freedom to pursue our true passion. Retiring early can be great but if you do not think about what you are going to do with your time it can be very dissatisfying. We can have all the money in the world but money does not equate to happiness. Instead, if we have something that we are passionate about that makes us jump out of bed each morning we are much better off.

    Personally, I would rather live a life with a medium salary and a passion than to be retired with a lot of money and no passion or purpose for the rest of my life. Society has painted the picture that retirement is all rosy, but in actuality there is much more that has to be contemplated before we jump for early retirement. Thanks for this awesome article.

  16. Reply

    I’m also surprised when boredom is an issue. There are so many ways to spend you time other than work. I wonder if it’s really a lack of things to do or the fact that the early retirees’ identities were so closely tied to their occupations? Also, as someone mentioned, these people are probably very committed, goal-oriented people to have achieved early retirement? I wonder if there’s a letdown after the goal is accomplished?

  17. Reply

    If you work at something you enjoy then you’ll feel better about your job. If you were to retire early I think it’s very important to still do something you enjoy, whether it’s a hobby or volunteer. You need to keep your mind occupied.

  18. Reply

    I read one that retirees who do part time work or pick up an engaging hobby are much more likely to outlive someone who retires and does nothing. Its like our bodies are programmed to find some sense of purpose even when it is time to “rest.” I personally am kind of on the workaholic side of things so I can def. see how thats possible.

  19. If you are working at your passion, I wonder, why would you retire early? If you aren’t working at your passion, shouldn’t you be trying to find a way to do so? I have to agree with Steve Jobs on this one!

  20. Reply

    It always amazes me that this is actually a problem. I know for me, I’m so clear about my visions and goals that I will always find happiness by continuing to grow and do what I love (whether I’m working at a job or whether I’m reading and taking cooking classes while I’m retired). I just know I won’t be sitting around getting bored and / or depressed.

  21. Reply

    This is a great article and I 100% agree. I have never really understood the “early retirement” crowd. yes, they want to retire, but do they really? If they “retire” only to pick up some paying side job or part time work, then did they really retire? Can we just start calling early retirement financial independence?

    • Reply

      How about “frugally independent”? 🙂

      I really liked this post BTW… It got me thinking, thanks Vanessa!

    • Reply

      FI is a much better term although really we need a new term for people who have managed to learn how to live a frugal lifestyle and so cut the cord from a higher paying job and are now earning possibly way less but finally following their passions and are much happier. I meant why wait till you have 25 years worth of living expenses before trying something new if you aren’t happy, and know you can get by with living on much less anyway? I know I’d much rather have the bigger Financial cushion but I don’t want to trade another 10 years of my life to get it, when it might turn out fine if I quit my job next week and start turning over some money on some fun side gigs and part time work. As long as income covers expenses, then I’m happy

      • Rosemary
      • August 11, 2014

      I think the desire to have more freedom and time, which I found to be very strong, is not the same as total freedom and unlimited time. Now I have found a happy medium by working at some volunteer work which I am passionate about, doing some occasional work as a Mystery Shopper for variety, travelling and learning to grow my own vegetables and source organic meats. My life is varied and interesting but at the beginning it was hard to feel connected to the rest of the world when I had no place to be and nothing particular to do. One must seek fulfillment, it will not come by itself.


Leave a Comment