Are early retirees 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?
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.
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!