I. Am. Retired. (Kinda)

by Michael Scepaniak on June 22, 2019 in finance

Wooded area with fallen trees and path through grassy floor in Summer - Cockeysville, Maryland, USA

I’ve been giving early retirement a try for the past year and a half or so. I’m 44 years old. By all indications, it’s working!

Despite that, when given the opportunity, I frequently hesitate to declare myself “retired”. When filling out surveys (and forms for things such as loans, credit cards, and new accounts) I tend to select “Self-employed” rather than “Retired”. I find this interesting, partially because I didn’t see it coming.

Over the course of my 20+ year career of doing software development, I’ve accumulated a multitude of habits, activities, processes, behaviors, etc. that were meant to further that career. And when I was approaching early retirement, I anticipated myself chipping away at and discarding a good amount of this build-up. But, I’ve been slow to do it.

The voicemail greeting and email-auto-responder that I’ve had in place for many, many years to deal with (typically ill-targeted and unwanted) recruiter messages are still in-place. I haven’t modified them to declare myself retired and “off-market”. I still read articles and discussions I find on Hacker News about software development. Part of that is due to genuine interest, but part of it is owed to professional upkeep. The laptop bag and messenger bag I used for years when commuting to the office are still sitting in the same place in my house, ready to go. I haven’t put them into storage.

Reluctance

When people think of “retirement”, simplistically and in general terms, they think of it as quite the accomplishment. I’m one of these people. And I’m genuinely proud of and pleased with myself for that accomplishment, early or not. But, there’s definitely a reluctance there to completely “fess up”, for fear of somehow walling myself off from my career as a software developer. It was a career that enabled my early retirement. It was a career that brought me a good amount of enjoyment. It was a career that earned me respect and recognition. It was a career that I was adept at. Given all of that, it’s hard to take steps that would (I feel) endanger my ability to re-clothe myself in that identity.

Labeling sets up an expectation of life that is often so compelling we can no longer see things as they really are. This expectation often gives us a false sense of familiarity toward something that is really new and unprecedented. We are in relationship with our expectations and not with life itself.
Rachel Naomi Remen

I imagine that I would be experiencing similar anxiety were I, instead, making a hard shift in careers – from software developer to, say, farmer. Both “retiree” and “farmer” are equally distinct from software developer. To fully embrace either would “require” shedding the identity of “software developer”.

I can also imagine that stay-at-home parents who are “staying home” from established careers go through similar progressions. However, stay-at-home parents enjoy the luxury of having their stay-at-home-ness viewed, frequently, as transitory. Parents temporarily exit the workforce in order to raise their young kids. Once their kids stop being young, the parents stop staying at home.

The Word Retirement

In contrast, the word “retirement” conjures up notions of finality. Professionally, it is a culmination.

But, I definitely don’t view myself as “done”. My life is not winding down. I reserve the right to adopt a new career or re-adopt my previous career. This is one way in which early retirement is distinct from traditional retirement. In traditional retirement for traditional people, advanced age begets poor health begets impaired abilities begets lowered expectations begets many… fewer… options. Early retirement, this is not.

As I heard Angela Heath state very well at a panel discussion in which we both participated, we don’t really have a good word that properly captures what early retirement is.

The word “retirement” carries with it too much baggage. It’s a word that allows for too little flexibility. It is too small a box.

Whenever I decide to pursue new endeavors that are decidedly un-retirement-like, I don’t want anyone to refer back to a box I once checked and say “Sorry, you said you were retired”.

Mike

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