They Don’t Want to Retire Early, They Just Want to Work Less

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They Don’t Want to Retire Early, They Just Want to Work Less

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"I don't subscribe to the idea that I need to live a miserable life now to possibly enjoy it later.” Why some millennials are opting in to working (and earning) less today

For some people, being ambitious doesn’t mean subscribing to #RiseAndGrind hustle culture, but it doesn’t mean having no aspirations either. Rather, it means aspiring to a different kind of lifestyle that requires less money to sustain. This lifestyle centers one resource above all else: free time. In the pursuit of maximal time for rest, recreation, and personal projects, they forgo what they consider to be unnecessary luxuries.

Granted, it takes a certain level of privilege to choose to work less, as the people I spoke with were quick to acknowledge. They have credentials that allow them to earn higher hourly pay, and no children to support.

Still, given their resumes, they could be earning far more than they do.

In our status-driven culture, which places enormous importance on the accumulation of wealth, their choices hold up a new sort of aspiration for upwardly-mobile professionals.

Rebecca*, an editor living in Los Angeles, took a step back from full-time work when her employer offered her a buyout. While all of her former coworkers chose to stay in their jobs and earn more, she took the opportunity to slow way down, going from a forty-hour-per-week salaried job (plus side gigs) to working ten to twenty-five hours per week for various freelance jobs. Now, she makes just enough to cover her bills.

“I’ve been living on way less, for a little over a year now,” Rebecca shared. “But honestly, my life and lifestyle changed so much since before the pandemic that it doesn’t feel like much of a sacrifice.”

Sarah*, a financial manager living in Salt Lake City, found her dream scenario in a remote job that only requires sixteen hours per week. This provides her with enough money to live on when combined with her partner’s salary. She feels it would not be worth it to earn more by picking up additional work.

“There were times in the past few years when I increased my hours to see how it felt to trade more time for money and it just felt wrong for me,” she said. “I would rather have more time in life than anything else.”

Both women share an aversion to the prospect of putting off their enjoyment of life until they retire.

While they both put aside some money into retirement accounts, they expect to need to work for many more years, and don’t subscribe to the FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) movement.

“I don’t really see myself retiring in the traditional sense,” said Rebecca.

“I’m always going to want to be doing something useful with my time, that’s just how I am. Right now, I’m working on learning various crafts and creating passive income streams for myself.”

She said she’s skeptical of a lot of retirement advice. “It assumes a lot that we can’t be certain of. So I follow some of the advice, but I don’t live and die by it.”

“I don’t subscribe to the idea that I need to live a miserable life now to possibly enjoy it later.”

Sarah expressed a similar view. “I’ve always been mystified by the idea of sacrificing your ideal life now for the uncertain promise of a future payoff far down the line,” she said. “From my own personal experience, life is not guaranteed for even one more day.

I’ve tried to build my most beautiful version of life in the present rather than wait for it down the line, maximizing the experience of life and all of its joys and pleasures in the here and now. Working less gives me the freedom to do that.”

Of course, earning less comes at a cost. In addition to cutting back on regular habits like ordering takeout, Rebecca has put off home repairs, a physical therapist, even some basic self-care.

“Eventually I’ll want to get my hair cut by a professional again, since I’ve been cutting it myself in the bathroom mirror.”

Sarah acknowledges that she could afford more things if she worked more, but feels strongly that it wouldn’t be worth it.

“The idea of trading my free time for more clothes, a bigger house, a nicer car, or any other status symbol seems insane. I just don’t derive as much value from things that would cost more money than we’re able to afford now.”

While downshifting isn’t an option for everyone, it’s more accessible than some of the other strategies promoted online, like retiring at forty, making a quick fortune through crypto investments, or finding a rich partner to support you.

Assuming you’re willing and able to scale back your spending, it’s also not necessarily that financially risky. More importantly, though, it offers a more fulfilling alternative to “quiet quitting” or silently checking out.

In contrast, deciding openly to work less isn’t mutually exclusive with working hard, (and maybe even enjoying doing so) during the hours you areon the clock, and thus is less likely to lead to burnout and burned bridges.

One might even find that scaling back hours for a period of time (say, when they want to focus on family, or need to grieve a loss or reset after a particularly grueling job), rejuvenates them so much that they genuinely want to go back to working more. Call it a “halfway-sabbatical.”

At a time when so much conversation revolves around burnout, exploring many different approaches to work could help people imagine the scenarios that’d work best for them.

*Names have been changed for privacy

Annie Midori Atherton is a writer, content producer and parent living in Seattle. She’s interested in exploring how our broader culture impacts everyday life and questions of why we are the way we are.

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