Is early retirement selfish?

Again, I have a good friend who, while they absolutely understand the maths behind financial independence, simply do not wish to pursue it.

Their argument is simple: If everyone pursued and achieved financial independence, society would collapse.

Unlike this post by Mr. MM, my friend was not thinking about the horrors of a less consumerist lifestyle. They were thinking in more practical terms of “we need nurses, government officials, shop clerks and plumbers to make our society go ’round.”

I actually rather like these thought experiments. My friend is a very clever engineer who likes to work and contribute to society. They are always respectful, but as it so happens, I’m really bad at thinking up counter-points on the spot, so I ponder the issue in a blog post at some later point in time instead.

Are we selfish?

Although it is not the actual way they phrased it, I think some of the core of the counter-argument is that pursuing financial independence, on the premise that you risk a societal collapse, is selfish.

Obviously, since I am here, still pursuing financial independence, I would argue that no, it is not particularly selfish. Not unless you also think writers, artists, musicians and other clever masterminds are selfish (many of who become financially independent if they become successful).

I’m a person, not just a pawn in society chess

Then again, I have personal issues with people calling the selfish card on how I chose to live my life. I chose to study science instead of more creative pursuits, largely because I had been told from an early age that I had a brain and an obligation to use it. I had it internalised to a degree where I firmly believed that if I was not pursuing something “useful”, then I was a waste of resources and might as well… not exist.

This is not a healthy attitude, I do not recommend it.

You get my drift. Teenage and early twenties were a roller coaster for me with annual bouts of depression hitting like clockwork every late winter/early spring, and they were especially tough while I was in university, where I was more often than not wishing I was doing something creative instead.

During my M.Sc, I actually had a jerk studying “society economics” or some such thing come up to me and, upon learning what I studied, promptly told me that my education (lots of laboratory work) was so expensive that I did not just have an obligation to work in that field the rest of my life, nay in his unsolicited opinion, it would be morally wrong not to do so.

Excuse me while I go barf.

I don’t know why, but from what I’ve seen (granted, entirely biased), students of engineering and natural sciences seem to be especially prone to get hit by this kind of attitude from others. It’s easy to moralise when it’s not your own life, isn’t it?

Beyond money

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I think that society, moving more and more towards automating more and more jobs, could do with seriously considering universal basic income if we want to avoid a chasm of a wealth gap. Early experiments in Finland gives some indication to universal basic income even having the potential to save the government money, as poor people previously stuck in an endless and expensive carousel of paperwork and government officials, suddenly are free to pursue creative pursuits or start businesses.

It’s worth pointing out several times that, although early retirees in the financial independence community are not a very large subset of society yet, there are strong indications that most people don’t simply stop working and leech on the rest of society when they become financially independent. They pursue other projects, they contribute, and many pursue projects that would look like traditional work to the outsider.

I for one, and I know Mr. E. shares my sentiment, have grown up in a society where taxes are not considered a necessary evil to be reduced and avoided as much as possible. We pay our taxes with pride, knowing it provides support to those who need it, including ourselves. If and when we become so wealthy that they start charging us wealth tax, I will take it as a sign that we are very lucky to be rich enough for them to do that. Many people never have the chance to have that “issue”.


This was not even really a thing until working pre-set hours for a pre-set amount of money some 100+ years ago. People simply helped when there was a need for it. Old nan Beth lived with her children in her old age, getting fed and taken care of. Often watching the younger children in return. People came together if someone got lost in the woods.

It is not as if people stop contributing to society if they don’t need the money. At least, I choose to be optimistic enough to believe that.

As an example, in Norway, the Red Cross are responsible for a very important task: trained volunteers are the first line of defense whenever hikers, campers, skiiers, tourists or what have you, get lost in the wilds, stuck on mountain cliffs or hit a sudden bout of bad weather. These are people who more often thank not have to leave their day job to go pick up their gear as soon as the police calls asking for help.

In other countries, I hear firemen are often volunteers, especially in rural areas. Another crucial task left in the hands of unpaid “amateurs”.

If it came to a point where we desperately needed nurses where I was living, happily financially independent, would I ignore it? No, I like to think I would not. I would volunteer if need be and if I could be of use, because it is such a basic human need to feel useful and helpful.

We see it in times of war too. The large majority of the population volunteer, contribute or try to do their best in what ways they can. Only a fraction try to evade the system or abuse it.

Closing thoughts

It is true, I do not work in a profession where other people’s lives depend on me. I am not a healthcare professional or a part of child protective services. Of course, I’d like to think my work is useful as I gather and analyse environmental samples for harmful chemicals, but I am aware that I am a voice in the choir trying to convince government and industry to change. If I were to leave, I would be replaced quickly and the work would continue. I would still fight in my own, small way. Trying to live sustainably, and by example.

Have you had any existential crises or personal obstacles on your path?

I think we all struggle at times with internalised values that can be hard to shift. Please leave a comment and share your experiences!

Are early retirees and people striving for financial independence inherently selfish?

22 Comments on “Is early retirement selfish?

  1. I liked your post. I agree, perusing early retirement is not selfish. Also, when one person retires, it leaves a job opening for someone else?

    • I think what my friend is concerned for is what if Everybody wanted to retire/retired early.

      I honestly think that it is a non-issue, but it can be difficult to articulate why on the spot. But to me it boils down to: I like to think I would help, should it be necessary. Even if I was financially independent.

  2. Ha, I’m exactly the same about never being able to think of a decent response or counter argument on the spot. I need to think about it and ideally express it in writing!
    I think there are so many people that love their work and can’t imagine retiring early from it, that for many occupations it won’t be an issue if some retire early. Worst-case scenario is that workers are recruited from overseas to plug the gap.

    • Glad I am not the only one. 🙂

      I think a lot of “if everybody did X” arguments are inherently flawed. Obviously, everybody would never do job x, we are all different, after all.

      I have worked hard to embrace the attitude: if I am paying good taxes as an honest and lawful citizen, who cares exactly how I earn/pay those taxes?

  3. Another big part here is the frugality needed to reach early retirement is (usually) a catalyst for a much more environmentally friendly lifestyle. Regardless of any other reasons, this alone makes me feel that the FIRE movement is doing a very good thing.

  4. I read your post this morning and had to think about it a bit (not to decide if FI is selfish). But more about the impact to society if nurses, doctors, <insert any profession someone thinks makes a vital impact to humanity. I keep coming back to two things:

    All professions are needed. Who says water plant engineers, farmers, restaurant staff, waste collection etc are less valuable or needed professions than doctors haven't thought it through. City densification is a key strategy to limit environmental impact. Take away waste collection and see how fast it gets unpleasant. We had a waste collection worker strike, it got ugly fast.

    The so called high value jobs of nurses, doctors, etc are stressful and have higher burn out rate. What if most reached FI or FIOR within a decade and could cut back on their hours? More people could share the same work load and I bet patient health care quality would increase and so would their personal lives.

    Anyway, just my thoughts.

    • Yeah, I absolutely agree that all professions are needed. If farmers, for whatever reason, stopped making/were unable to grow our food, we would all have to leave cushy office jobs and start picking up tools again. Same with waste collection as you mention, things get ugly real fast. People tend to forget, but our society is a lot more fragile than we like to think!

  5. Anything is selfish if you think hard enough about it. Giving to charity can be selfish because it makes you feel good about helping others. I tend to believe you do what you can to help others when the opportunity presents, but your job is not the only opportunity. By choosing your job your excluding some other options that might also help society.

    • You can look at it like that. But I find that when you do, the word “selfish” looses its meaning and becomes useless. It is a valid point, and I think FI helps build agency so that people can choose to stay in their job or not, but they don’t have to.

  6. If you look at if from a different perspective…the fact that FIRE seekers are saving for retirement at all and planning to provide for their own financial needs and wants in retirement puts them well ahead of the vast of numbers of people who have no retirement savings at all. So if you are FI, you are not going to burden others or create a deficit to society, you will be taking care of yourself, which is a bonus to society as a whole.

  7. The “if everyone did X” construction is so flawed as to be meaningless, IMO. Is there any single thing that everyone does the same way, ever, in human history? We have to eat, drink, and sleep, and the vast majority of us have relationships with those basic needs in our own special ways. The same most definitely applies to work. And honestly, what if we all tried to pursue FI?

    We’d still have to work, to some degree, to build up that base of wealth to live off of, and lots of us would still work, and lots of us would actually choose work that was meaningful to us (creative, socially beneficial instead of just lucrative, etc). Maybe there would start to be a shift in cultural values that cares more about the quality of the work you did than the money it could bring in without perpetuating the starving artist ideal archetype. Goodness knows we could use more of that in America.

    And until we earned enough to be able to live off our savings, we’d learn to be more frugal and less wasteful. Is any of that bad? It could be a whole lot of good!

    In any case, there are so many ways that “everyone pursuing FI” could play out, even if as much as half of any given population was into it, I think it’d be really interesting to see.

    • I agree that it is flawed argument, but as it is one I hear a fair bit, I figured it was worth addressing.

      And even if everyone pursued FI, people pursue FI in different ways. Some might stay in their job because they enjoy it, but with the added security that they won’t loose their house if they loose their job, or if they find they do not enjoy it as much anymore. Others might quit their day job and start a business instead, providing value to the economy that is encouraged.

      If more people pursued FI, perhaps we’d see a rise in improved working conditions? As more jobs realise they have to treat their people fairly well in order to keep them.

  8. It’s sad that many of us live in a culture where the first reaction to anything resembling early retirement is “wait but that means you’re no longer a productive member of society.” My contribution to society is so much more than my sitting at a desk for 8 hours a day “working,” so why do we always use that metric? And I’d argue that the full-time job I don’t get a ton of satisfaction from is actually hindering my contribution to society! I could be doing so much more—especially volunteering—if I had the majority of my time available to me.

    Plus I’m doing my best to make sure I’m on secure footing for the future so I don’t have to rely on the safety net if something ever happens, which leaves those resources for other people who need them.

  9. Ooh! Thought experiments! These are fun.
    I think there’s enough people that enjoy their jobs or “contributing to society”, much like your friend, to ensure that these important jobs are always going to be filled. I also think that there’s enough people that don’t think financial independence is possible, or just don’t want to adjust their lifestyle enough to achieve it.
    In addition to volunteering or working for free like you mentioned, I think financial independence isn’t always quitting your paying job at all. It’s just knowing that you COULD if you WANTED to, or just downgrading to less a less stressful version of your job. As in, if you’re a nurse, you could still be a nurse, just work less shifts.

    • Those are good points. And I think the definition of “selfish” can be quite different for different people, as illustrated. 🙂

      And your last point… yes! It’s the power and the freedom, even if you never pull the plug!

  10. Thanks for posOmg this question. I have wrestled with it myself. However, I suspect that most people who have the focus and self-discipline to work toward a large goal and achieve it will continue to find ways to contribute to society after early retirement. Folks in the FIRE community are generally working toward something that holds meaning for them (time, flexibility, etc). I bet most will continue to work toward things with meaning—possibly even more soo—with the freedom to not have to work for money.

    • Yes, I think it is something many conscientous FIRE folks at least have thought about, if not wrestled with! With such a self-selecting crowd, it makes sense that you would find something else valuable to spend your time on, as you say. 🙂

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