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Work • Purpose

How to Retire Early

One of the most common and deeply-cherished fantasies of our times is the idea that we might ‘retire early.’ Websites abound promising to help us with the dream, managing our finances, working out where we might live and deciding with us how close we might want to be to a beach – or perhaps a mountain.

But what we often miss in glowing discussions of early retirement is the extraordinary work that is being done for us across this subject by the apparently innocuous term ‘retirement’. This word manages to pull off an astonishing feat: it momentarily anaesthetizes all those who hear it into forgetting their society’s founding pressures and most ingrained competitive values and renders deeply desirable states of inaction that could – without the word – simply have appeared contemptible or downright lazy. 

Someone in the prime of life who loses any interest in going to the office, who doesn’t care about promotion and who isn’t trying to accumulate ever more money would standardly be described as a loser. Unless, of course, that is, they could declare that what they wanted to do was ‘retire early’ – at which point they would be transformed in our eyes into fascinating and near saintly figures. We would know that they had stopped working not because they were incompetent or got sacked or were mentally weak-willed. They were almost certainly very good at their jobs; they just gave them up freely to focus their attention on a host of intriguing things that gratified them far more. 

Strikingly, at present, we only invoke the idea of retirement around employment – which is a profound pity because there are so many other things that it might be extremely important for us to stop doing, but which we feel obliged to continue with because we are under punishing pressure from others to conform. ‘Retirement’ is the word we should learn to use to explain quitting a host of activities otherwise deemed crucial without forfeiting our claim to be classed as honorable and dignified.

Ironically, it might not even be work that many of us most want to retire from. We might be far keener to retire from, let’s say, late nights, going to the theatre, using social media, holidaying abroad or having sex with new people. Take the idea of announcing ‘early retirement’ from parties. Usually, if someone turns down every invitation and stays at home, they’d be seen as lonely and withdrawn – and probably unfit for human company. But suppose we could say that we’d ‘retired’ from social life; our decision would instantly acquire nobility and prestige. We’d be seen to be giving up not because we couldn’t stand other people or because we were gauche or unpopular. The implication would be that we might have been perfectly capable of making witty conversation over cocktails – but that we had decided we’d done enough of that sort of thing and were going to concentrate instead on deepening our friendships with just two or three people or on learning a new language by ourselves in bed. 

The same could hold around material competitiveness. We could step back from having an impressive car or a large house and declare that we were ‘retiring from consumer society’. While such a move would typically be seen as a mark of failure, with the word retirement in tow, we can imply that our interests have been willingly and intelligently redirected towards new more aesthetic or spiritual targets.  

A flaw in the current notion of retirement is that it is unimaginative about what an individual might retire from. Mostly, the vision is that one stops working so as to be able to undertake outdoor leisure pursuits – tennis, gardening, sailing – and perhaps move to a place with a milder climate. But we can get more ambitious about what we unshackle ourselves from: we could retire to connect more deeply with our own minds, to develop our creative potential, to keep a handle on anxiety, and to explore who we could be if we stopped caring so much about what other people thought of us. 

Reference to retiring also softens the blow for others. When we retire from work, people don’t feel we’re letting them down – our colleagues will perhaps throw a party for us, congratulate us and say how much they’ll miss us. Likewise, by announcing our retirement from social life or relationships, we’re making it clear that there’s no suppressed personal hatred at work. We’re just rejigging our priorities.

It’s ironic that life-advice for the young is so overwhelmingly focused on what to do in one’s career. In a wiser society, the emphasis would at the same time be about retiring – as early as possible – from a host of supposedly necessary demands which, on closer inspection, are entirely unsuited to who and what we are. 

Our societies are very keen for us to have busy, competitive, complicated lives. We should express thanks for the well-meaning suggestions and then, without causing anyone offence, make our moves towards announcing early retirement from a host of areas that torment us in the name of the simpler, kinder lives we long for.

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