The Unspoken Problem with Early Retirement

September 21, 2017

Ah…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.

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32 Comments on "The Unspoken Problem with Early Retirement"

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… Read more »
Jacob Lumby
Jacob Lumby

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

Charles McCool
Charles McCool

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 Lumby
Jacob Lumby

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

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… Read more »
Natalie @ Financegirl
Natalie @ Financegirl

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.

Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life
Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life

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.

Jayson @ Monster Piggy Bank
Jayson @ Monster Piggy Bank

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.

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… Read more »

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.

Mrs. Frugalwoods
Mrs. Frugalwoods
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… Read more »