Is Early Retirement Selfish?

So there is another round of thought running around the blog world about is early retirement selfish (see here and here)?   The answer of course is: yes!  Yet not in a bad way.  I think everyone is inherently selfish to a degree.  How much varies from person to person, but in the end we all are a bit.  The issue with early retirement is people for some reason assume you are no longer a productive member of society and thus try to put that selfish bit in a negative light.

The issue of course is life isn’t so simple.  Let’s examine a few things.  Is buying a new TV selfish? Yes, I think we could argue no one would die without a TV so it isn’t a need.  So if that is true then buying a big house is selfish, and so is buying a new car every five years.  Yet when you choose not to buy the new TV, the big house or the new cars is that selfish by choosing to save the money instead? On the one hand is you are just keeping some savings for emergencies or regular retirement I think people would consider it more prudent planning than being selfish.  Yet if that is the case, where is the line between prudent planning and being selfish?  If you retire one year early are you selfish? Likely not, so why is doing it five, ten or even twenty years any different?  In reality there is no difference other than the difference you build in your mind.  So why do you feel there is a difference?  I’ll take a stab at this, you feel guilty about retiring early.

Which brings us back to the concept of a productive member of society.  I think for some reason people assume that early retirement means doing nothing and thus you are not productive.  Yet that is a false assumption.  People are never doing nothing.  Kids who are five and under don’t attend school and don’t have a job, so in some people’s definitions of productive would be seen to be doing nothing.  Yet in reality we know small kids are learning machines who are figuring out balance and gross motor control, fine motor control, language skills, defining their environment, learning object permanence and literally thousands of other little things that you take for granted every day of your life.  There are definitely not doing nothing.  The same applies to early retirees, they might appear on the surface to be doing much but the reality is they are learning gardening or a new language, helping others, starting small business, driving up your property value by picking up trash on their morning walk…you get the idea.  If you try to call early retirees unproductive members of society you might as well extend that to small kids or even artists since they don’t produce things that people need or pay enough tax.  The label of unproductive is really, again, just in your head.

So after deconstructing those two concepts it easy to see early retirement is only selfish (in a bad way) and unproductive if you want it to be.  Yes early retirement will always be partly motivated by selfish goals, but that doesn’t mean it is a bad goal.  Early retirees do have the difficultly of adjusting to find more meaning in their life than just their career.  Most working people don’t have to think of how they contribute to the world, they just assume it is their job.  Which is sort of silly when you consider how many useless paper pushing jobs there are out in the workplace.  It’s entirely possible by retiring early you will contribute more to society than you ever did as a working stiff.

So in the end you need to find your own answer to: why do you want to retire early?  I won’t judge the answer, but you will in our own mind.  If you get it wrong, then you will feel guilty.  So be honest with yourself and really think about the question.

So why do you want to retire early?  In my case, I want more time to learn and write.  How about you?

8 thoughts on “Is Early Retirement Selfish?”

  1. Hi from Brazil.
    I agree when you say that everyone is selfish to some extent. Actually, we could even say that almost everything we do in our life is because we are being selfish. Why do we get married to someone? Because it makes us feels great at some way. Why do we eat this, watch that? Because for us, in our minds, that makes us feel good, even if in the reality it doesn’t. So, we are always going after something that makes us feel good, even if it makes us feel bad at first. Even feeling sorry for yourself counts. So, being selfish is in our nature. But that’s definately not bad. We just should not harm anyone in this process (including ourselves). Then we are good!

    Great article!

  2. No way is ER selfish. Someone who retires early is creating a vacancy at his last job so that someone who is not working (i.e. a graduating college student) can get that job and become a productive member of society. If that job vacancy is left unfilled, then that is helpful to those who remain because none of them had to be let go involuntarily.

  3. How is it in any way selfish? So what if you’re not productive. If you’ve put in your time and can retire without being a burden, than who’s hurting? Someone else will fill your spot. But living a happier, more fulfilling life is selfish? BS.

    When I retire, early or otherwise, I’ll likely spend the majority of my time sleeping in and relaxing. I’ll pursue whatever interests me for the pure joy of it, without any fears of how it will affect my working life – because that will be done.

    Selfish? Why? Because someone else isn’t doing it? That’s not selfish. That’s jealousy from others.

  4. Even if you are always helping others, you do that because you feel good, be it because you’re obeying some internal rule you have (church, family), be it because you feel good seeing someone else feeling good. We are always trying to feel good, even if not aware of, you are “thinking” about you, what is basically being selfish.

    The problem of being “selfish” and retiring at 45 (for example) is when you don’t have enough money from yourself, but needs money from the government and if you somehow get it (I’m not sure how this works in your country), others will be paying for your retirement. That’s a bad “being selfish and retiring at 45”, but if you have saved enough money and don’t need any external help, then that’s a good “being selfish and retiring at 45”.

    It is all about the consequences for the others’ lives.

    I also agree with Astin that some people are jealous about someone who planned for early retirement.

  5. Lately, I have read a few articles about a growing movement in the US to stop ‘overemployment’! Apparently, overemployment is when people work longer than financially necessary or have mutiple jobs when they don’t need multiple jobs to ‘get by’.

    I have read at least two articles in the past year portraying these people as selfish and unpatriotic for hoarding the limited number of employment opportunities avaialable in the current economic climate.

    Apparently, no matter what you do, you will be labelled selfish either way.

  6. Everybody’s already said pretty much everything… here’s my try:

    Damn right I’m being selfish for wanting to retire early. I want to spend more time with my wife. I want less stress. I want to grow the perfect garden and explore more watersheds to find the best fishing holes and build the perfect project car and make some furniture and beachcomb more often and participate in more sportscar races.

    What would be more selfish than ER is to say “I need more money, so I’ll continue not being available for my wife and remain at work.”

  7. A few months back, someone on this site had the audacity to call my goal of retiring at 45 “selfish”. Garbage.

    My positive contribution to society and the planet will be much greater if I’m no longer working. There is so much I wan’t to do that involves the betterment of our world – and my current working status prevents me from doing it. No, early retirement works on so many levels for me….

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