Accidental Activist

Freedom 95

My mid-life retirement makes a lot of sense. The kids are young, everyone is healthy and I'm ready for a change - so what better time to kick back and consider my options?

By Ben Bull
Published July 07, 2008

I wondered what I'd said to make them laugh so much.

"You want to retire when you're how old?" said Mike, banging his fist on the table and rocking back in his chair.

"Er...60?" I replied, adding another 5 years to my number, "...65?"

"Not a chance!"

I was sitting with my investment advisors, trying to lay out some plans for the future. "Ben" said Brendan, shaking his head and leaning over the table, "you're going to be working into your grave."

I had an inkling that 'Freedom 55' was not going to be for me. Despite mine and my wife's best efforts to stash away the odd 5k here, divert an annual bonus check there, we weren't exactly wallowing in it.

"There's barely enough here to cover your kids education" said Mike, squinting at the numbers.

"Who said anything about paying for their education?"

This was all very disappointing. After 20 years of scrimping and saving, siphoning $50 a paycheck and borrowing lump sums every other year, we'd hoped to be doing better than this.

"You need to be more aggressive" said Mike, drawing a line through my numbers and scribbling down some of his own.

"Meaning...?"

"You have to save more."

I have never really bought into this whole retirement thing. The commercials with the guy on the boat, the couple sipping wine by the lake. The idea of putting away what little spare money I have so I can rock back and forth on a porch when I'm too old to do anything else, has never made that much sense to me.

'What's the use of being rich when you're old?' I wondered.

The 'Freedom 55' thing makes sense though. At 55 you're still young enough to have fun but, as my investment advisors had spelled out so clearly - this was never going to be an option for me.

But not to worry - my philosophy has always been that money is there to be spent.

Why save for a rainy day, if the sun is shining today - right?

But recently, my line of thinking has changed.

"Why can't I retire now?" I said to my wife last year, as I trudged in from work contemplating my 40th birthday just a few short months ahead. "I'm getting old."

"Because we're broke," she replied, stating the obvious, "and you're not old, you're young."

But I didn't feel young. The idea of turning 40 filled me with dread. I felt old.

"I need a rest," I continued. "I've been working too hard."

It wasn't so much working too hard that was getting to me though; it was more the need for a break, a change.

"How much longer can I keep plodding along?" I'd wonder, as I stared at the same faces in the office and opened up the same spreadsheet, "when is it going to end?"

By the time I reached 40 earlier this year, I decided I had to do something about it. "Call our investment advisor!" I said to my wife, as I plugged in my laptop and reviewed the 50 emails received on the 30-minute commute home, "I'm going to retire."

"We don't have an investment advisor" replied my wife, patting me on the head and kissing me on the cheek.

"Why not?"

"We don't have any investments."

In the end I decided to settle for a leave of absence.

"You want how much vacation?" said my boss, when I handed him the request.

"It's not a vacation," I replied, pointing to the heading at the top of the form, "it's a leave of absence."

"What's the difference?"

"I'm not sure."

The fallout from my request was immediate.

"I hear you've found another job," said several of my work colleagues. "Good for you!"

"Where are you going - Europe?" said others, assuming I'd embezzled the company.

"Do you hate us that much?" said everyone else. "What did we do wrong?"

I bit my tongue and hung on 'til April.

I started my mini-retirement two months ago now. It was funded by last year's bonus, a tax refund, and the promise by my wife that, if we ran out of money, she'd get herself a job.

I realize that, in many ways, I'm lucky. Not everyone can afford to take 4 months off. But at the same time I wonder - what would I have done without it?

My mid-life retirement makes a lot of sense. The kids are young, everyone is healthy and I'm ready for a change - so what better time to kick back and consider my options?

It never ceases to amaze me how much work gets in the way. My Dad hated his work, but he slogged away, counting down the days 'til his retirement.

"A man has to work," he'd tell me, discounting my suggestion to 'take a break', "you can't always enjoy what you do."

But he never made it. Heart disease and a series of heart attacks cut him down a few years ahead of his goal.

'Why didn't he just call it quits?' I've always been left to wonder...

When I'm working I feel less focused on the things that matter. This is perhaps partly my fault, I tend to worry too much and get overly stressed when things don't go the right way. But a lot of it is just work, the pressure to perform, the monotony of doing the same thing day in, day out.

It affects my relationships. My kids, as they cling to my legs when I walk through the door and beg to be taken to the park, are nothing but a nuisance. And my wife, as she flicks through the television channels while I'm trying to tell her what bugged me that day, isn't on my side. She doesn't care. Even my hobbies - my latest short story still sketched out on a pad, the mountain bike rusting in the garage - are neglected. It's as if my whole life is on hold.

I'm half way through my time off now and things appear to be coming back into focus. I look forward to taking my kids to the park these days, the looks on their faces when I tell them I'm, 'counting to 10':

"So get a bloody move on!"

Tucking them in at night without a cluttered head full of work memories, noticing for the first time their wide eyes and attentive faces as we flip through Green Eggs and Ham or take another trip to Where The Wild Things Are.

And I'm re-connecting with my wife, and realizing that she doesn't ignore me when I grouch and complain, she just feels useless and scared, and doesn't know what to do to help.

I will, of course, like everyone else on Raise The Hammer, be back in the fold two months from now, but until then I'm going to savour every Summer moment with the people I love, and have myself some fun.

I hope you do the same.

See you in September!

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.

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By jvanessen (registered) | Posted July 10, 2008 at 09:45:58

Congratulations! Good decision. I am 51 and finally quit my commuting job last week and sold my house. New week I am leaving Hamilton to volunteer my way across western Canada to "retool" for my future in a carbon reduced world. Our culture expects us to follow the rules which supports the current economic environment not necessarily us. I always worked full time and my girls are turned out perfect - I was the one that missed out! My kids have finished university and are fully independent, so I am free to hit the road and "sharpen the saw" instead of sawing away with a dull blade complaining all the way. All the best to you... jve

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By Thom (anonymous) | Posted July 12, 2008 at 18:34:30

If you want to extend your "retirement" move back to Hamilton! Seriously though, you can make it last a lot longer here. Even longer if you move further away like out east.

I "retired" this year as well. I'm 29, no kids, no loans to repay. Though I plan that mine will be a little more permanent than yours. You're bang on when you suggest that everyone hates their jobs. Why do them then? Don't just accept the world as it's sold.

We need three things in life: food, shelter and community. Unfortunately the state doesn't allow us to truly be free despite all the commercials selling us freedom. But if you can ignore the Iphone commercials and all the other crap that comes with modern life you can get by with very little.

That's the big secret that the state doesn't want you to realize. In fact living more simply might just be the solution to all our problems.

Good luck to all of us.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted July 22, 2008 at 00:45:34

"My Dad hated his work, but he slogged away, counting down the days 'til his retirement."

That kind of statement says it all. Working, at least in the waged sense, sucks. Though productivity has been soaring for decades, ordinary working class people have not seen any serious decrease in working hours (in fact, with the advent of the women's movement, we've seen total working hours nearly double) or real increase in wages. A century ago, and for decades before that, the idea of working less was central to the labour movement - Canada's first recorded labour activism was a group started to advocate for the 9-hour workday, right here in Hamilton. People died fighting for the eight and nine hour workdays, and now in many cases we're actually working more.

Working is not good for people. People die. People are permanently injured. People endure serious physical and mental stress, and in manifests in all manner of negative ways. People commute for hours on the 403 then spend their days at cash registers and desks, and face the mental and physical consequences of getting virtually no excercise. Welders come home spattered with burns from flying molten metal, coal miners come home wheezing from black lung and many steelworkers spend their days risking death in environments which are entirely hostile to human life. While at work we miss out on our loved ones, our friends, our hobbies, our passions and our communities.

Less than 2% of our population grows all of our food (plus much for export). The job market is filled with many effectively nonproductive jobs - management, advertising, finance, and warfare - we could easily cut the workweek down a dozen hours or so and still meet all our our physical needs (housing, food, medicine etc). Though I doubt this will ever become policy, it could easily come about one person at a time, as individuals down-shift their lives away from current levels of consumption, and make more sensible choices about from whom they chose to consume.

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