Unpopular Opinion: Why Are So Many People Scared to Retire? GUILT

In the year-plus since I quit my job and semi-retired, I’ve noticed something unexpected: just how polarizing and controversial the word “retire” is. (Especially among the generation older than I.)

And it’s really no wonder that some people straight up scoff at retiring early, in a nation where busy-ness and overwork is a badge of honor… and when the first question we are asked when we meet someone new is, “So what do you do?”

While some see my apparent youth and congratulate me on my early escape from the 9-5, others react much differently. This past year, I’ve heard:

“If I retired early, I’d be bored!”

“But work gives me purpose.”

“Well, I couldn’t just do nothing.”

“I wouldn’t be the type to not work.”

“If I’m retired, I might as well be dead!”

Honestly, many of those reactions confuse me. They confuse me because 1) I think there are some assumptions and misconceptions about the meaning of “retirement” and 2) some of these reactions say a lot about how a person derives their value.

First and foremost, a definition for “retirement”

Let’s start at the beginning. According to Oxford dictionary, retirement is “the action or fact of leaving one’s job and ceasing to work.” And what then is work? Work is defined as “mental or physical activity as a means of earning income.” Let’s put the two of these together: Retirement is the action or fact of leaving one’s job and ceasing mental or physical activity as a means of earning income

Once someone ceases mental or physical activity for money… do they cease to exist? No. Being retired doesn’t automatically mean being sedentary or lazy or doing nothing (and if it does, to that person I’d reply, “If I retired early I’d be bored — said no one interesting” [insert side eye]). People who aren’t making money still exist, and still do ________ [fill-in-the-blank].

A job-free person is freed up to do what calls them instead of what someone will pay them to do. Work may be enjoyable. It may be intellectually stimulating. But when someone works, they are still trading their time and labor for compensation. It’s just what it is.

People who are not earning income CAN and DO still engage in mental or physical activity: whatever they want to do, what interests them, or challenges them. For example, in semi-retirement, I am blogging and creating content for readers and followers like you. I just published an eBook that makes the case for and helps readers strategize for a mid-career mini-retirement (check it out!!). I am a coach or mentor for people who want some 1:1 support when it comes to a nomadic lifestyle and travel. And I’m practicing Spanish, reading, and waterfall-jumping, to name a few.

Exercise, education, and exploration: there’s a whole lotta life beyond the paycheck.

If there’s nothing you want to do or see outside of work… there’s a huge opportunity to figure out what in the world lights your fire. 

The retirement stigma: Retirement is not a bad word or a selfish act

The fear of running out of money and the fear of boredom are two of the most commonly cited reasons why so many people stay in the workforce, and they are closely tied. Some people think… there are only so many games of golf to play, or murder mysteries to read, or margaritas to drink. So they keep working, keep earning, keep spending, and keep saving. 

But I think the real reason, the unspoken, deeply rooted, most debilitating emotion for so many people deferring retirement… is GUILT.

We so wholly believe this, and it has been so ingrained in our workaholic society…

  • That our value is in how dutifully and selflessly we serve others.
  • That our purpose is in a good, honest day’s work. 
  • That we must dedicate our mental and physical energies to some segment of the world as long as we are able to, and if we don’t, we are worthless leeches.
  • That we need to sacrifice 40 hours of our weeks, for at least three-quarters of our lifespans (maybe longer if we don’t save responsibly), because that’s the example that was shown to us.

I think, in our centuries in the hamster wheel, we’ve been shamed and scolded: it’s selfish to put ourselves first and look out for our mental well-being. It’s wrong to seek recreation, and to do anything self-motivated. It’s childish to live exuberantly and joyfully, without productivity or something to show for your time, or to spend time doing ANYTHING at all that doesn’t have a “point.” And it’s definitely scandalous to do any of that without “earning it” through the requisite years of workforce toil.

Leisure is a spoil. Amusement is a waste. Idle hands and whatnot!

Plus… the guilt that especially women feel about kids or parents that we feel a responsibility for. While every situation is different, I’m only a plane ride away, and I know that the people I’m related to understand that I’m a whole person outside of our relationship.

If people think their value is based on what they tangibly provide to others — it’s easy to see why they would feel guilty about retiring. Because, let’s be real: while “work” may create purpose and stimulation, people don’t work for free (not according to the official definition). 

  • We are more than our output. 
  • We are more than our duty.
  • We shouldn’t feel guilty for looking after ourselves.
  • We are more than a job title and an employee number, each one of us is a whole person with interests, hobbies, and aspirations.
  • And we shouldn’t build unsustainable habits that require us to be bound to a desk three-quarters of our lives. 

Life is NOT about making a living. It’s about making a LIFE.

My rules for living

⚡️ Instead of buying, filling, upgrading… downsize, simplify, and hold on only to what you need and use and value.

⚡️ Instead of rushing around between work and obligations… be an explorer, student, traveler, lover, savorer.

⚡️ Instead of squirreling away, deferring and delaying gratification until the magical age of retirement… indulge every day in what you love.

⚡️ Instead of following routine blindly to the point of complacency… uproot, upend, shake, imbalance, and challenge.

If you’ve been reading the blog for awhile, you’ll love the transparency, candidness, and relatability in my new eBook. Give it a download and let me know what you think!

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7 thoughts on “Unpopular Opinion: Why Are So Many People Scared to Retire? GUILT

  1. Hello Julie, glad you are doing well. You are spot on with this post. Many years ago I sold my house lived off the profit while working a part time job in order for me to be able to be home after my son was finished with school for the day plus I took summers off for same reason. My ex was zero help with anything related to his sons care. Almost every person in my age group whom I thought were my friends were downright jealous of me doing this. Instead of being happy they went opposite direction. It stumped me for awhile until one of them made the remark “not everyone can sell their house to stay home and do nothing”. As if raising my child plus still working part time was doing nothing. Truthfully I loved those years, I also had savings which the majority of my friends do not, they chase all the latest trends in clothes, cars, phones etc. My priority’s are total opposite. This post is a reminder that it’s possible I’ll see a repeat of this situation when I walk away from my job soon. Stay safe!

    1. I’ve held the opinion for a while that jealousy is not necessarily coveting what someone else has, but is a reflection of the hate or regret one has for their own choices. Good luck on your pending retirement, and don’t let the naysayers get you down!

  2. I’m on a similar journey (though not traveling). Part of it is seeing my dad bust his behind his entire life only to never sniff retirement age. He was diagnosed with leukemia and was gone in two and a half months. Years after his death, I found myself heading down a similar path. I stopped, took a look around, and set off on a different course. P.S. Love your blog. Found it via your Becoming Minimalist guest post. Take care.

    1. I feel for you, Jeffrey! I’ve talked a bit about my dad, who developed atypical Parkinson’s around the time he retired (which he also delayed). He died suddenly in 2018. I often think about how I’m having the “retirement” he never got to have. Thank you for sharing, and my condolences.

  3. While I understand what you are saying here and I plan to retire, I do see and know people that their work is what lights them up, that they would do even if they weren’t being paid. I also know people who love their work and have fabulous other interests and spend lots of time on things you list like hobbies, exercise, traveling, etc. So I don’t think it’s quite as black and white – most things are usually quite that black and white. I don’t think it’s either or and we should be open minded to allow that folks could be working not just for a paycheck.

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