Abolish the Early Retirement Police

divided floor, one half red and one half with lots of designs

The conversation around abolishing the police is one our country should have, but the “police” I am writing about today and the issues surrounding them are admittedly much lower-stakes. While the actual police force has a lot to atone for, the folks I’m talking about do something that’s simply annoying: they crack down on definitions of early retirement. 

Who are the early retirement police?

Most people can get onboard with the “FI” (financial independence) part of FIRE. Of course it makes sense to save enough money to be able to support yourself independently. However, most people balk at the “RE” (retire early) part. After all, if you write books, keep a blog, open a coffee shop, become an entrepreneur or earn money after “retirement”… well, can you really call yourself retired?

Many say you can’t work and be retired, and they have been branded by Jacob from Early Retirement Extreme and Mr. Money Mustache as the Internet Retirement Police. However, these people are everywhere, not just on the Internet, so I call them the ERP—The early retirement police.

The ERP argue vehemently against people’s claim to retirement. They say because someone chose to do something productive or make money from it, then they aren’t really retired. Frankly, this is a pedantic claim that does more harm than good, which is why I want to make a call to abolish the early retirement police.

How do you define retirement?

Retirement is a relatively new concept, which is part of the reason there is so much confusion around what it really means. If you take the dictionary definition, you would see that the ERP have a fair point when they say most early retirees are not retired:

The definition says you have to cease to work. This may seem pretty cut and dry, but when you investigate a bit further, it’s anything but. It brings us to the next question we could posit: what does it mean to work?

How do you define work?

The definition of work is the true sticking point for anyone rooting out the true meaning of retirement. 

1. activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result

The first definition includes most things that make life worth living. If you quit your job but spend your time golfing all day, you are technically working! It takes physical effort to play 18, the purpose is to beat your previous score and the result is improved health. If you decide to knit your grandchild a sweater, you are by definition working. It’s mentally tricky keeping track of each stitch, and in the end you have a beautiful result: a gift to wear. If we go by the first definition of work, nobody retires, not even the 70-year-old banker who left his career to spend more time gardening (after all, being a gardener is a profession in-and-of itself). 

2. a task or tasks to be undertaken; something a person or thing has to do.

If we agree that as a society, there exists some type of retirement, then it is helpful to pursue the second definition: something a person has to do. [emphasis added] 

This is where early retirees stake their claim: “I am retired because I don’t have to work.” Once a person is financially independent, they can decide if they want to go into an office or onto a beach. Whichever they choose, ultimately they don’t have to do it if they don’t want to, so ‘the drudgery of work’ doesn’t apply.

Definitions can be fluid

It’s not so simple as to point to a dictionary and say “case closed” with a new phenomenon like retirement. People used to work until they died! It wasn’t until relatively recently that advanced economies decided to guard against poverty in old age. Governments started working out ways to pay pensions and other benefits to allow employees to leave their business and retire. American Express offered the first retirement plan in America in 1875, and Social Security followed in 1935.

“Growing prosperity also meant more people could afford to stop working late in life.”

A brief history of retirement: It’s a modern idea

by The Seattle Times

It just so happens that now, more people are able to afford to stop working earlier in life as well. With the dictionary definition lacking, sociologists search for other ways to define retirement.

The Three Definitions of Retirement

According to sociologist Robert S. Weiss, there are three ways to define retirement: economic, psychological, and sociological.

Economic Retirement

Those who bemoan FIRE as a deceptive scam take on the economic retirement definition: “The economic approach [to retirement] assumes that a person older than his or her mid-fifties is retired if he or she does not work, or at least does not work for money.”

Clearly early retirement under this definition is impossible, because it assumes a person retires before their mid-fifties! In addition, this definition brings up the complications about what it means to work, and gets around it by claiming that even if you work, you at least should not earn money from it. You can be retired if you volunteer your time at a local non-profit, but not if you join the board. You can spend your days surfing at the beach, but I daresay you lose your retirement card if you start up a surfing school!

The fact is that if someone is over the age of 65, it’s much easier to consider them traditionally retired, even if they work in some way. Since many early retirees can be younger than fifty and most continue to “work”, they are immediately disbarred from this narrow definition of retirement. 

Psychological Retirement

The second method for defining retirement is called “psychological retirement.” This method says that if you think you are retired, then you probably are. This is the definition that most FIRE proponents go by. The defining factor is not about whether or not you work (because you probably will work in some capacity!) but whether you have the freedom to decide what that work looks like.

We can argue about the term all day, but those who say they are retired probably are.Click To Tweet

I know retirees that worked their entire lives in the medical profession, but in retirement they run a successful vineyard. Their lifelong passion for wine fueled a retirement dream that brings in some money and takes a lot of work. Yet they still consider themselves retired, and so do their peers.

Similarly, J.D. Roth from Get Rich Slowly says, “When asked, I often say that I am retired. (Or, at the very least, semi-retired.) Yes, it’s true that I’m currently spending 40+ hours per week running this website. It’s also true that I hope to make money from it. Despite this, I consider myself retired. That’s because I’ve (unknowingly) been using the psychological approach to defining retirement.” 

Alternatively, several people who are considered part of the FIRE movement still eschew the “retired” label for themselves, like Jillian Johnsrud:

We are 33 and 38 respectively. And after a crapload of hard work, saving, investing, fixing up rentals, putting in some years with the military, we are work optional. I never really cared for the term retired. It just doesn’t seem to fit us. It implies to me that a person is done working. Truth be told, we really like work. All kinds of work. We like working in the garden, with our ducks, remodeling our rentals, volunteering, oh yeah, and our herd of 5 kids. They are a bit of work too!

J.D. Roth and Jillian Johnsrud both have lots of financial freedom, but under the psychological definition of retirement, we would only consider J.D. retired, because he considers it so. When someone like J.D. uses the psychological definition while the ERP use the economical definition, sparks fly.

The sociological definition of retirement

The third definition of retirement is whether or not other people see you as retired. This is where the the Early Retirement Police barge in to assert themselves. 

It’s difficult to consider a young person as retired. Weiss shares the experience of a retired lawyer, “He said he was delighted to reach his mid-sixties…Not until then could he be sure his claim to retirement status would be accepted.” Likely a lot of early retirees will be similarly relieved to hit a certain age and be able to turn “I’m a consultant,” or “I work from home,” to a more honest: “I’m retired.”

Other people are a poor measurement of retirement, because they don’t have the full picture of anyone’s life. This problematic way to define retirement is what gives the ERP false authority on deciding who is and who is not retired.

You can retire early and still earn money

Another common refrain from the early retirement police is that early retirees are only retired by becoming “the product” and selling the idea of early retirement to others. Essentially, their lifestyle is bolstered by others’ dreams to retire early. Here’s one example of a tweet that could be leveled directly at me, someone who plans to retire at 32 and who currently runs a blog talking about it:

"I retired at 32! So can you!" says the person who's not really retired, but running an online business with questionable advice, e-courses, advertisements, sponsored hyperlinks, cookies, and pop-ups promising that you, too, can someday tell people "I retired at 32! So can you!" — Kristen Meinzer (@kristenmeinzer) October 9, 2020

I’ll start by saying I respect Kristen a ton, she runs one of my favorite podcasts By The Book and authored a book to help people start their own podcasts. I don’t think she’s wrong in this tweet, either. There are scammers out there claiming early retirement who are still financially dependent on their income. This is 100% disingenuous and has a dark multi-level marketing illegitimacy to it. I also agree with Kristen that the “So can you!” claim is fallacious as it doesn’t take into account personal privilege.

However, I see similar accusations pitched at early retirees who also just so happen to have a blog, a podcast, or other social presence. The difference is whether or not the person who claims to be retired is financially dependent or independent. For the financially independent creator, there is nothing wrong with earning money from their work, as it imbues the finished product with value. Nor does earning money detract from their retirement status. This harkens back to my earlier point: they don’t have to do it, and that makes all the difference.

It’s good to be critical of people with questionable motives. There’s a lot of value in realizing when someone is selling you a dream and not a reality. Financial independence is the underlying key to retirement. Before claiming someone is ‘not really retired’, ask yourself, if you took away the e-courses, advertisements, sponsored hyperlinks, cookies, and pop-ups, would the person still be financially independent? That’s the measurement for early retirement– not the distracting bells and whistles of hobbies that also earn income.

Why focusing on “retirement” definitions misses the point

People who are quick to point a retiree’s working partner or side income are rightly concerned that a claim to retirement is misleading the public. They are right to be wary, and luckily there is a simple way to get to the root of the issue. After that, arguing about retirement only serves to undermine the story of incredible accomplishment.

If you could be considered retired without your working spouse, side income, or other extra benefit, then by all means continue calling yourself retired. The early retirement police’s loud whistle distracts from the impressive story: even if you take away a retiree’s blog, podcast, or Etsy shop, they could still continue living off of their investment income happily. 

Policing the word 'retirement' distracts from the true value of the message.Click To Tweet

It’s important to share information that bolsters a FIRE journey so people can get a complete picture. Let others continue to share their financial independence stories, and also how their spouse continues to work, how they earn income from side projects, and their qualifications for tax deductions. All of these things add context to an awe-inspiring story, whether or not they are reproducible for everyone else.

I am positive that I will have pushback when I retire early. Though I am saving up my own salary and my plans only involve money I have personally made and invested, I am confident that people will look at my life and attribute my success to other things, like my working partner. I hear it now: 

“Her partner is a doctor, she’s only retired because he is still working!” 

“She could only retire because she doesn’t have kids!”

“Not everyone has a British passport to fall back on if healthcare in the U.S. goes to hell!”

Here is where I could point out that I am saving up $1.2 million on my own salary and investments. I would still be financially independent if my partner and I had never met. In addition, I have doubled my projected expenses in case of extenuating circumstances (like kids). And yes, a British passport is a unique part of my own citizenship, but I am still planning by factoring in long-term U.S. healthcare costs to my early retirement plans. All these accusations do is distract from the overall message: it’s possible to save and invest enough to escape the rat race before the age of 65.

Why don’t we just drop “early retirement” from FIRE altogether?

If you’re onboard with the financial independence aspect but hate the thought of “retiring early” like Carl from 1500 Days, well, you’re not alone. Most people say the same thing, asking for a rebrand or bemoaning how “FIRE” is unfortunately too catchy to drop.

Beyond the marketing appeal and headline puns available from the acronym FIRE, the early retirement aspect is important. Many people adore their jobs, but for those who peer into the future and sweat from an existential dread about 45 more years of work ahead of them– simply searching for the words “early retirement” will help them find resources that will help with their finances and lead them to financial independence. 

Still, many folks skirt the ERP saying things like, “I retired from full-time work” or “I am work optional.” These are creative solutions that work if retirement must stick to its rigid definition. I think the definition is starting to wiggle out of its neat dictionary confines, much to the chagrin of the ERP.

divided floor, one half red and one half with lots of designs
image by Joshua Coleman from Unsplash

Retirement can be perplexing

You may say, “Who cares what other people say about how you live your life?” If you can consider yourself early retired, you have better things to do than bristle at the accusations of naysayers.

As Tanja writes in her article on The False Distinction Between Financial Independence and Early Retirement,

We as the personal finance community have bigger encouragement to offer and bigger myths to dispel than arguing the semantics of financial independence versus early retirement.

I agree, and ultimately this is a conversation to help us examine what “retirement” and “work” means to each of us. It can help us realize there are other paths in life. FIRE is about choosing the work you love, not halting work altogether.

I believe that work is inherent to the human condition.Click To Tweet

Therefore all retirees, young and old, should be encouraged to work. Most traditional retirees “work” in some capacity. Doing laundry, cooking food, raising kids or grandkids, serving on boards, all of these things are work but don’t always conjure up a businessperson in a suit. The sociologist Weiss points out that even in retirement, he and his colleagues remain engaged.

I find retirement perplexing, even as I write about it. The freedom to do anything includes the freedom to remain engaged as well as the freedom to do nothing. And yet there is something special about the style in which I, as well as former colleagues who are now retired, remain engaged, to the extent that we do. Whatever our ultimate goals– to leave a legacy, to complete a life’s work, to contribute to our society, to keep busy– we are not trying to establish ourselves in our careers. That is done, over.

– Robert S. Weiss (born 1925, age 95 years),  The Experience of Retirement p.4

Just because retirement can be perplexing doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it. Those who have retired early are done trying to establish themselves in their careers, but that doesn’t mean they are done with work.

Abolish the early retirement police

Saving up enough money to retire early is life changing, not just because you can stop working. It’s life changing because you can start working on things that matter to you. You can work when you want to work and how you want to work. You can leave toxic situations without worrying about the economic fallout. You can pursue your childhood dreams like The Mad Fientist, who applied to be an astronaut.

The problem about nitpicking about whether or not someone is retired because they are still working is that it completely misses the point! If someone saved and invested and improved their life— it’s a story worth sharing. If they still work, have a spouse who works, have a pension in place, or even have popups on their blog, they can still be retired. Those things are ultimately distractions from the fact that they became financially independent and managed to design a life for themselves.

Abolishing the early retirement police means broadening and updating the definition of retirement. If you consider yourself retired and have the means to stop ‘working’ if you so desire, you can call yourself retired! Vigilantes who claim otherwise are ultimately wasting their time and distracting from the true pearl of FIRE: when you are financially free, you have the option to shun obligations, pursue passions, and work how you want. 

What do you think?

What is the difference of financial independence and early retirement to you?

Would you still work if you were financially independent?

If you could write a new definition for retirement, what would it be?

Share in the comments below!

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18 Comments

  1. I think it’s fair to come up with a new acronym and abolish ERP.

    But you literally linked to and talked about only white people in the fire movement in your post. Do you not see the bubble you are in?

    Further, how much does your eventual $1.2 million generate in come?

    1. FIRE is absolutely a bubble, and it heavily skews white. That’s a fact due to a ton of different variables that deserves its own post and not a little comment. I don’t like it, and I think it’s changing.

      Investments generate income in many ways, from dividends to interest to capital gains. Typically the average return is calculated to be 7% accounting for inflation.

  2. I think there are an awful lot of people who would deeply, truly do NOTHING if they retired, and that is their plan for when/if they eventually retire at the more typical age. Frankly, my husband is one of them. If he retired, he would do absolutely nothing but play video games and watch sports. Without question. He had four months off last summer, and that’s all he did. I think that the idea of early retirement as being a “working” one is highly skewed toward the kind of motivated, driven people who seek early retirement in the first place. I count myself in that! If I were able to retire tomorrow large parts of my life – including commitments and work – would stay the same. So it’s difficult for me to understand people whose greatest aspiration is to do absolutely nothing at all (frankly, not even play golf all that often!), but there are quite a lot of them out there, and I think some of them are the ones that get all sour grapes when people retire early – but still work on other projects.

    1. This is interesting, because I think a sabbatical/few month break is not necessarily indicative of a full-on retirement. From reading peoples’ stories, it seems that some people check out for usually around a year (playing video games and generally decompressing in nonproductive ways) before they are spurred into action by the expanse of time in front of them. However, you may be right that some people would simply continue living like that! It would be interesting to see if there is research to see the length of time people go without being productive if they retire early.

  3. I’ve been thinking a lot more about this as we approach financial independence. The options ahead are extensive, and none of them (for me) include not working at all. But, if I step away from a career I’ve dedicated 20 years of 60-80 hours a week to..that would seem to be some level of retirement. I’ve increasingly realized I don’t need to meet anyone’s arbitrary definition, but still haven’t settled on what I’ll say if/when I do step away and am working less. For me, it’s the choice that matters about financial independence.

    1. Absolutely! In researching this article, I came across the idea that you can say, “I’m a retired educator, and a writer,” (or whatever your version is) where you acknowledge the career you retired from and also the work you currently do.

  4. Hey, I’m 57 and I’m retiring in 2 months! I still consider that early(ish)…

    Word got out at work and I get the question, “But what will you DO?” a lot.
    “Whatever I bloody well want!” is my answer.

    I’m a teacher, so I can easily pick up the odd day’s work here and there if I want to and I haven’t ruled that out.
    But worrying about ERP???
    I think as you get older, you care less and less about what other people think. I’m designing my life to suit ME. I’ve worked very hard to get here and even if the ERP made snide remarks my way, I doubt I’d even notice. 🙂

    1. Congratulations on your impending retirement! I’m happy to hear you are actively designing your life and are not too concerned about the ERP 🙂

  5. Count me in for not judging whatever label people choose to describe their life (unless they’re being deliberately misleading). While we’re at it, can we within the FIRE community embrace that for some people “choosing the work you love” does actually mean “halting work altogether”? I know y’all are super excited about your side hustles, but some of us are just as excited about unproductivity and #sluglife.

    1. You’re someone after APurpleLife’s heart <3 I agree that there is sometimes an overcompensation by focusing on all the work people will do in retirement without acknowledging that for many it's a true chance to simply decompress and do nothing. There's definitely moral judgement on folks who choose to be unproductive, yet doing nothing is often a way to take care of ourselves! I hope you have a great #sluglife coming soon!

  6. I see financial independence and early retirement as essentially the same thing. Perhaps with the caveat that the ER happens when/if you choose to leave the job you held while saving for FI. I grew up with the idea that retirement was tied to the magic age of 65 and found myself questioning why my mom was having a retirement party when she stopped working at the church but was not quite 60 yet. And when my dad was laid off at 63 I wondered if he would be “ok” retiring early. I had no need to worry, my dad is incredibly fiscally responsible, has a military pension, and apparently saved enough cash to live on between 63 and 70 when he started claiming SS in addition to his investments which are also enough to support my parents spending (he has belt, suspenders and is wearing a jumpsuit). It was a huge lightbulb moment to realize that early retirement was not just financially possible but also kind of normal.

    I will continue to create and build and probably work after I reach Financial Independence, but I’m not sure if I’ll continue to be paid for that work. My spouse wants to work in restaurants again (what he did for work before with poor pay, no benefits and industry instability to boot). He wants to cook because he likes to create and learn and make food for people but it will be really nice when the paychecks are a bonus and the stress of getting enough hours or working in a toxic workplace are quickly resolved by leaving.

    It’s not that I don’t want to work, it’s that I don’t want to work all the time, on projects I don’t believe in, for people who don’t listen, forever.

    1. It’s cool to hear how your own preconceived notions were challenged by your own parents! It’s a fascinating idea to think of working in a generally-known-as-high-stress job where it could be much lower stress simply because the stakes are so much lower as well. What happens when the power dynamic gets turned on its head and the employers need the employees more than the other way around?
      I absolutely agree with you that ultimately it’s about work we choose and desire.

  7. I think this actually isn’t all that difficult to tease out.

    If one is running a business for profit and spends more than a token amount of time doing so, then one is self-employed, not retired. (To put a finer point on it, if this activity is one that, if meaningful time were not regularly spent on it the attendant income would dry up, then it is self-employment.)

    If one is doing something as a hobby, assuming one is financially independent, then one is retired.

    1. I think measuring by time is an interesting approach. However your last sentence re-complicates it– what do you consider a hobby vs. some type of employment? If you spent less time doing it?

  8. It’s difficult to tell whether someone “has to” do something or not. From my personal experience, living solely off an investment portfolio and subjecting yourself to the whim of the stock market is a completely different experience than living off income earned from current activities, no matter how any retirement calculator shows you will be OK. If someone values the psychological comfort of covering one’s expenses no matter what the market does, an argument can be made this person “has to” engage in those income-generating activities. It does make a big difference if you take away the bells and whistles.

    1. I see what you mean, although I would argue the difference in “has to” in that case is internal motivation and not driven by external factors. But as you say, that person thus feels like they have to work for that psychological comfort, then they likely wouldn’t feel retired or call themselves retired (so they don’t meet the psychological definition of retirement).

  9. We’ve tried to sidestep these labels by going with “transitioning” to retire early and currently “semiretired”. We’ve got the money to pull the RE trigger today (and then some). But, Jenni, especially feels a desire to seethrough a smooth transition on projects and responsibilities she spent building with a small company. She’s down below 100h/month of paid work time. She’ll keep whittling that down as she lets responsibilities go.

    The thing is, if you asked if she’d do it for free, I think she’d struggle to answer the question. It’d seem wrong to herself to be unpaid for commercial work, but similarly wrong to leave her work incomplete. I’m very curious to see how it’ll eventually play out. The pandemic has put a big kink in our plans, and that’s okay, she’s in a healthcare field so it’s important and valuable for her to keep helping.

    That said, I’m down to 27 hours/month of work as of September. It’s more than a token amount of time, but it’s mostly just mentoring others and slowly transfering all my responsibilites off to other folks and closing out my projects. I don’t know how long that will last…another year? Hard to say. Similarly, I don’t feel right just letting go of longtime relationships and clients, mentees and friends. I often do the work for free. I just want them to succeed in their missions and what we started.

    Finally, I feel like a lot of the purpose of work is simply to create. Paid or not, the point of work is to leave something in the world novel.

    Fun to think about that FI/RE balance and the tug-of-war.

  10. All technicalities aside, you can call yourself retired from your job, yes. But not financially independent if you are still working to make money to live on. So if your making money from your blog, or selling books, and that let’s you stop working at your previous job, your not retired. You just changed jobs.

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