Like most things in life – the idea of early retirement seems to provoke a range of responses.
One of the more interesting ones I often see is people equating early retirement with laziness.
As in, it’s lazy not to want to work.
But how do you define work? Is it simply the fact you are paid to do something that makes it ‘work’?
I’m more than used to hard work on my journey here to early retirement. Do I feel like I’m lazy now? Idling my time away and contributing nothing?
It intrigued me enough that I thought I’d dive a little deeper.
How Do You Define 'Work'?
So how do you define work anyway? Thanks to that Newton guy and his concept of ‘Force’ we have something surprisingly simple;
Work Done = Force x Distance Moved
Basically, you work harder as either the force required for the task or the distance needed to be covered increases.
Sure, for fellow physics fans out there you can find some more complicated variants but you’ll probably be relieved to know this isn’t going down a maths rathole.
Instead, I quote it as a starting point for how work originally was considered very much a physical activity. Measurable by effort.
These days of course the concept of ‘work’ is far more than simply physical effort. At the same time though, the definition of work seems to have also evolved to become tightly entwined with the concept of earning money.
Does that mean if I’m not earning I’m not working?
Try telling that to anyone who’s been homeschooling their kids for the last couple of months!?
There are many, many activities where society in general seems to consider people as ‘working’. E.g. child-rearing the classic example.
And an equally large number of activities where it seems somehow obvious that they aren’t ‘working’. E.g. spending the afternoon drinking beer at a brewery.
But what if your job just happens to be head-taster at said brewery? Does that mean the activity is now considered work again? Why?
It seems to me the driver behind what we do and don’t consider ‘work’ is whether someone needs to do it vs they are choosing to do it.
So how does this fit with defining what ‘work’ is?
Adding Emotion To The Work Equation
When we do something freely because we enjoy it – it doesn’t feel like work.
This is why so many people recommend following your ‘passion’. After all, if you can get paid for doing something you would happily do for free – that’s awesome.
It’s not bad advice – but that advice usually comes with the caveat that the jobs that people love tend not to pay well.
Pesky small print…
The sweet spot is if you love something most people don’t. Being a natural contrarian can have it’s uses at times. But it’s not common.
Therefore an awful lot of people are working at something they wouldn’t freely choose to do. Doing so in the expectation of being (usually) financially rewarded for doing so.
And thus making the activity feel like work to them. Giving a modern twist to the work equation. Something like this;
Work = Doing something against our desires
This feels a bit closer to how I think about ‘work’ anyway. That freedom of choice can make a big difference to how I feel about exactly the same activity!
If I want to do something, I don’t consider it work. If I don’t want to do something – then I’ll need some kind of motivation to help persuade me to do so.
That’s why jobs pay after all. Money being a prime motivator for most people.
But what happens when someone retires early?
What happens when the financial carrot is no longer the dominating motivating factor in what I do and don’t do?
Do I just sit around and do nothing? Fitting some people’s perception that early retirement is for “lazy” people? Am I spending my time wastefully?
To get to the nub of it – do I think I still ‘work’ in early retirement?
Do I Think I Work In Early Retirement?
I’ve written before about how early retirement is not all puppies and rainbows.
There are a number of things I do in early retirement that I wouldn’t choose to do. For example, we’ve recently we’ve had a run of water-related mini-house disasters.
You know the sort, a hidden cistern drips through to stain the ceiling, a corroded tap joint decides to leave us a puddle on our bathroom floor. Really should have gone for that water-softener..
Now obviously we could just pay for someone to come and fix it. Find a plumber, arrange a time. Hand over cash. Done, sorted.
And I think it would be clear to most people that the plumber has ‘worked’. Exchanged his/her skills and time in order to receive money.
But hey, we’re still handy enough with DIY to do it. So what happens if we do that instead? Buy a new part, spend an afternoon swearing at tools.
Eventually emerging triumphantly – in need of a well-earned beer!
The exact same task has been completed. The same ‘work’ has been done.
The only difference is no-one’s been paid to do it. So is it still ‘work’?
If I hark back to my point about being free to choose to do it – does that make a difference? Does it matter if I enjoy it or not?
You get the point I’m labouring here I’m sure.
The task itself is identical – but the context and circumstances around it feel like they make a difference as to whether it’s ‘work’ or not.
So before we all drown down this giant rat-hole of pondering, let’s try and wrap this one up.
I think the only thing that matters is if I feel like I’m working without a choice about it.
Honestly – there’s a lot I do in my early retirement that takes me a lot of work. For example, it may not seem like it, but I put a lot of effort into these blog posts. Likewise in staying fit.
The huge difference is they don’t feel like work to me. I do them because I enjoy them or I want the benefits of them.
But they don’t come with the same stresses that paid work often had. I’m not on somebody else’s schedule with unrealistic expectations.
The other huge difference is that I’m doing them because I think they will benefit me or others. That’s a big difference to back when I was being paid to work.
One of the biggest upsides of having your financial freedom is that work is no longer money driven.
So do I feel like I ‘work’ in early retirement? The answer seems pretty clear – no.
But my days aren’t lazing around on the sofa surrounded by beer bottles either (honestly 😉).
I put a lot of effort into many things. I think that’s just my nature, I like to stretch myself. See what I can do.
But do they ever feel the same as paid work used to do – no. And that’s when you realise how lucky you are to be financially independent.
So that’s me sorted – but how do others view early retirement? Do my friends and family think I’m lazy? No longer contributing to society?
Do Others Think I'm Lazy By Retiring Early?
Indeedably wrote another great post recently, talking about how easy it is to misjudge people.
It’s easily done and I’ve been guilty myself for sure. When you don’t know the story behind the face, it’s easy to make assumptions. Often before you are even aware you have done so.
So it’s interesting when looking at the whole ‘do others think I’m lazy in early retirement’ question to consider the difference between people who know me and those who don’t.
My friends and family all know our back story of the hard work it took to achieve our financial independence.
They’re aware of how much time we ploughed into building our own home. Running the rentals. Fixing up properties. Commuting to/back from London at ridiculous hours of the day.
They know the story behind the face. And that carries through to how they see us now. Not lazy, just enjoying the reward of the hard work upfront.
It’s different when people don’t know us though.
Both here in the UK and when we are away on our slow travels, we’ll often end up in a conversation about our life-style.
It’s hard for it not to come up. Typically one of the things people ask early on is “what do you do for a living”. After all, I don’t (quite?!) have enough grey hair to look like I’m retired.
It took me a while to get used to saying some version of “I’m retired”. But I do. And the reactions have been amazingly positive.
Which is interesting when comparing my experience to what I read online. Where it seems there’s a lot more suspicion/questions about people going off-script and voluntarily not working. Especially when they are perfectly capable of doing so.
Why wouldn’t you want to earn more? How do you contribute to society?
Those are the kinds of questions I see and read about in various forms.
Perhaps it’s just different when these people are faced with a real-life example of someone who seems ‘normal’. Non-threatening to their own choices.
Most people are just curious and want to know more. Same way I’m always interested in learning about their story.
I’ve not had a single person yet suggest that I’m wasting my time – but perhaps they’re just being polite to my face?!
Maybe the best and most recent example has been when discussing returning to work. I’ve recently had a few old colleagues reach out and see if I could be tempted back.
It’s flattering for sure and they also happened to be in the camp of people whose company I enjoyed. I.e. a tempting, realistic offer. Not the usual automatic “thanks but no thanks”.
I considered it. After all, life is a little more limited than expected right now whilst lockdown goes on. And on.
The opportunities were in great spaces, areas I would have happily jumped at a few years back. But now – instead of feeling like an inspiring challenge, they felt like a return to the old same-same.
It’s funny how often you don’t realise you’ve moved on until you turn down the chance to go back.
But you know what? Those ex-colleagues all understood perfectly. I guess they knew me better than I thought.
Nobody thought I was turning the opportunity down through laziness. They just understood it wasn’t the challenge I wanted now. I’ve moved on.
Crucially, I’m no longer motivated by money or the need to earn it.
So in general I’ve personally experienced nothing but good feedback on my decision to retire early. But I’m conscious it can be and often is different when people aren’t directly talking with me.
So I guess the last outstanding question is – does it matter?
Does It Actually Matter If I'm 'Working' Or Not?
To me, it seems obvious that it doesn’t really matter what others think about if I’m contributing or not – it’s how I feel about it that makes a difference.
If I think I’m being lazy, I’ll likely come across as lazy.
If I think I’m contributing my best to this world – that’s what will come across to others.
Doesn’t mean they will necessarily agree with it – but I have learned it will make a difference in how you are perceived.
But as anyone on their own FIRE journey knows already – you are going to have a much easier journey if you are confident in your own choices.
Happy to be off-script from the general path of life. From society’s expectations.
You just have to read one of the best blog posts this year to see how tough things can get if you (or your partner!) struggle with the idea of ‘being different’. Of not keeping up with some unspoken expectations.
So for me, whilst it’s great I’ve had such a positive reaction from pretty much anyone I’ve shared this with – it doesn’t change what I feel about it myself.
Some things in early retirement still feel like ‘work’ to me, albeit unpaid. And some don’t.
But anything I do, I’m choosing freely to do. And to me – that’s the greatest benefit of financial independence.
I’m grateful every day to now have that choice.
I’m curious how others feel about it though? Concerned about feeling like you aren’t contributing somehow? Just looking forwards to lazing on that beach?
Let me know what you think…!
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11 thoughts on “Early Retirement: How Do You Define Work Anyway?”
A couple of years ago I became obsessed with creating digital content in a certain arena, completely unpaid, and it was consuming 20-30 hours per week (around my full-time job). My spouse and I had many conversations about this, mostly because she was frustrated that I was spending so much time on it. But we both knew that if I had been paid for that work, her complaints would have held a lot less weight for both of us. It’s funny, because I’ve never had so much fun “working”, but it created a lot more friction than paid work would have. Just a commentary on our cultural conditioning, when if you step back we all know there are lots of jobs that are unpaid but super critical to society.
My takeaway is that I love working when I’m passionate about it, and if it pays, great, if not, then I’ve already done the “work” back when I was working full time and saving for early retirement.
Hey again James!
Sounds an interesting time! The cultural conditioning thing you mention is key, I think. A lot of people prefer neat boxes and labels, making it only work if it’s paid. But I think it’s a lot more flexible than that.
Congrats on saving for early retirement – the freedom is amazing.
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“Do others think I’m lazy by retiring early?”
Ha! Who cares what others think! I have a feeling a lot of the people criticizing those that retire early are just stuck in a job.
Ha – exactly – a lot of FIRE/life is so much easier once you get past caring what strangers think 😂. And yeah, I agree it can often seem that it’s those who are most envious that prefer to criticise than change their own lives.
Cheers for stopping by.
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Excellent piece, with lots to think on.
In my mind, work is something you do (regardless of whether you want to or not) which you get paid for and such work benefits a third party (ie customer, client or boss) who has an expectation on you to complete the work within a specific deadline.
I guess an exception is ‘voluntary work’, which is still work as there is a third party who will benefit from your labours (for free) – however if you don’t manage to complete that work, the consequences (if any) won’t involve docking of pay, being put on PIP, getting fired etc. In fact, if voluntary work doesn’t work out, you’re the one in control and can walk away since you were working for free anyway (sounds familar to working folks who have FU money!?)
Also, I’d have to disagree with Steveark – if I were working 8 hours a week and getting paid for it, I’d be semi-retired. But as you say, everyone’s got different definitions of what retirement means to them.
Hey Weenie – cheers, glad you found it interesting. I did get half-way through writing this and wondered where the rat hole was going at times!
The ‘benefits for someone else’ is an interesting way to think about, I like it. Though there were defn times in my working career I doubted some tasks benefited anyone – another powerpoint, really? But hey, if that’s what you want to pay me for, sure…🤣
Reaching the FU money stage is an awesome point when working (however we define it!). Gives you a whole heap of freedom and often turns around a whole working situation from unbearable to fine, just knowing you can leave if you really want to.
Cheers for taking the time to read & let us know your take, appreciated. Chances of reaching a definition everyone agrees on…….slim….!!
I think it is very simple. If you are getting paid for accomplishing tasks you are working. If you are spending a significant amount of time getting paid for accomplishing tasks you are not retired. Of course that’s my definition. I’ve been only working 8 hours a week the last five years so even though I’ve earned $500K doing that I’ve been retired, because 8 hours a week is not a significant amount of time. However if you spend 20 or more hours each week working on a blog that makes a significant profit, you are working and therefore not retired. Needing the money or not needing it, loving the activity or not loving it, none of that matters. Volunteer work may resemble work, but if you aren’t paid for it, it doesn’t count as work. Even if you spend ten hours a day doing unpaid volunteer work you are still retired. That’s my definition, however I am not an official member of the retirement police so my opinion is of little value.
Hey – cheers for taking the time to read & comment, nice to hear from you and I did have to laugh at the retirement police quip – all opinions are of interest here!
Your part-time gig sounds great to me, that kind of thing is working well for my partner too. I’m pretty sure everyone will have their own definition of what ‘retired’ is and isn’t. Earning any money at all through work would count as not retired in some books, some look at the number of hours like you. And so on.
Me – I just find it fascinating that the exact same task can be thought of as work or not work just because you do or don’t get paid for it.
But more importantly, I don’t equate retirement with not doing anything, of not trying hard (working!) to achieve things still. To me, it’s the complete opposite. I can finally work hard on things that actually matter to me. Love it.
Even when they don’t pay me a penny – like this blog 😉!