Large Fries With That?

I was listening to a Sam Harris podcast the other day, when one of his guests said something along these lines. “There’s a global demographic bomb about to hit us. There are far too many old people retiring and they add nothing to society. Retirees don’t spend money, they save it, which depresses the economy. They invest conservatively and eschew risky business of any sort when it comes to their money. They add no value to the economy and become an increasing health burden as they age, putting pressure on this resource.”

Harsh, I felt, but was it fair? I often wonder now if I’m pulling my weight for society? Forget the fact that I contributed for a long time in my career. So did many other people, but I like to think that I did my bit to fund the community that we all enjoy living in. But what now? I’m exactly the problem that the podcast guest outlined. I’m increasingly careful when I spend my money, and a cafe charging more than £3 for a cappuccino doesn’t usually get my business. Bannatynes gym, selling four fingered KitKats for a pound a time, can forget it when I can get a pack of four of these for the same price in Farmfoods and sneak them in via my gym bag. 

The days when I was speculating in single company stocks have long gone. I once blew five grand on shares in a dotcom business that plunged in value a month after I bought it, and I held on bitterly until the bankrupt end. These days I sweat like Rikki Sunak trying to explain how much tax he’s paid when I contemplate the money I hold in my Vanguard 80/20 account. It’s only the fact that I don’t really understand the bond market that deters me from switching to a 60/40 or 40/60 account. Ironically, I’m now so cautious about change that I seem to be stuck in a “riskier” investment. 

I laughed as I read Mr Money Moustache’s recent post about people suffering from the “Just One More Year” syndrome at work. They’re terrified of not having enough put away for retirement and therefore work on to squeeze “just another year’s” income out of their career. And then they do the same again the following year. Pah. Wait until they do retire and simply replace that syndrome with the retirees lament: “Wait One More Year”. This is where the big holiday to Australia can wait until next year. As can the new car. As can the new kitchen. As can the new shoes. And socks. And so on, until 10 years have past and you still haven’t seen the Sydney Opera House.

So if I’m not contributing and not spending, am I becoming a burden to society? I’ve blogged about my efforts and intention to grow old as healthily as I can. Probably every retiree in good health has the same ambition/fantasy. But the last time I visited the doctor, he wondered if maybe now would be a good time for me to begin taking statins? For the rest of my life. How much would that cost, I wondered? Well, nothing to me, thanks to the NHS. I declined, but I asked myself at what point should I start taking them as a precautionary measure? After all, they’ll not cost ME anything, so what’s to lose? Maybe only the NHS as it grows overburdened by things like this – there’s a big notice in my local hospital pleading with people to buy their own paracetamol (29p a pack in Asda) because, last year, they spent over £600k prescribing it. 

Retiring at 57 I do believe I may be one of a blessed generation, if only because of the fact that younger people seem prepared to tolerate my indulgence. It is an indulgence. A luxury. I’m just a posh layabout, maximising tax breaks, working the system and goofing off. I really don’t like this notion and I often find myself thinking that I CAN be working and therefore I SHOULD be working, because that’s what makes the world go round.

I wonder what life would be like if we had a culture change where working into your eighties became the virtuous and most valuable thing you can do in your old age? I wouldn’t say this notion is frowned upon, but it seems to me that people who work into their late sixties and seventies or even eighties – like President Biden – are seen as being a bit odd. Or broke. Or a bit sad in that they clearly can’t find anything better to do. 

I keep reading that there’s a labour shortage in this country at the moment and that this is exacerbated by a lot of people who have taken early retirement. Perhaps someone could join those dots and encourage us (not so) oldies back into the workplace? While I wouldn’t fancy an eight hour shift behind a bar or making coffees, a four hour shift a couple of days a week would be a lot more appealing. I wouldn’t want, and really don’t need, the uncertainty of a zero hours contract, but I wonder if there was an alternative model that might tempt us back into the types of service jobs that seem to be so short of people right now? 

A couple of years ago on holiday in America, I noticed that there were quite a lot of older waiters and waitresses working in various restaurants we visited. At one point, in a McDonalds, I was served by an old bloke in his seventies. I think seeing that here would be quite unusual.  I’m sure there are lots of ways we could tempt people out of premature retirement with the right incentives, but I feel we need to have more positive examples out there in everyday life to show us what’s possible. I hate to think that retirees are just a drain on society and the economy, as Sam Harris’s guest seemed to think. Given that we’re increasingly here to stay, let’s think more about what we can do to continue to make a positive contribution to our communities. “Help the aged”, sang Jarvis Cocker, “One time they were just like you.” No, Jarvis, it’s we who were just like you, so how can WE help YOU?

Death, Health, Money, Sex

One of the encouraging things about blogging – when you’re not telling yourself that everything you write is actually a waste of time – is the positive feedback and interesting views you get from the Comments. When I stopped blogging, that’s what I missed. These days I spend more time reading comments on other websites too, including on the BBC News website (when they allow them) or on the online versions of the newspapers. That’s where the interesting opinions are.

My blog tends to divide opinion between those who love and embrace retirement wholeheartedly (or think they will) and don’t miss work at all and those, like me, who find themselves pining for some elements of the working life. As I read through some of the feedback recently, I found myself asking the question “Would I go back to work if an attractive proposition came along?” and I honestly felt that I might. 

Okay, so what? It’s no big deal and it’s not a sin to miss working, I don’t suppose. But, on the other hand, going back to work, for me, this time round would seem much more like a really wasted opportunity. When I decided to “commit myself to retirement” last March, the biggest question I was trying to force myself to answer was “If not now, when?” I was well aware of the cliche that nobody ever lay on their deathbed ruefully exclaiming “I wish I’d spent more time at the office”, but cliches are cliches because they have a fundamental truth to them. I was also aware that the title of my blog could be rearranged to reflect my mental priorities as I moved through the decades. In my twenties and thirties the focus and title would have been “Sex, Money, Health, Death”. In the forties, it felt more like “Money, Sex, Health, Death”. In my fifties, it began to shape up as “Health, Sex, Death, Money”, and my sixties seems to be heading more toward “Health, Death, Sex, Money”. Eventually, if I reach my nineties it might well be Death, Health, Money, Sex. Such is the ageing process. 

It didn’t help – or maybe it did – that last March I’d been spending time at the local hospital being checked out for something that I’d reported as chest pains, or at the least, what to me felt like severe heartburn. To be fair to the NHS, they put me through some rigorous testing and fortunately couldn’t find anything seriously wrong. But, as you lie under the MRI scanner, it cannot help but strike you that your days of taking health for granted are under threat. Could you imagine dropping dead at your desk in the office after being bollocked by some jumped up “senior manager” because your Powerpoint presentation was in the wrong font? Is that what life’s about? Aged 57, and taking advice from doctors and nurses who seem to look younger than your own kid, well, it makes you think. Or it made me think it was at least time to stop and smell the flowers, especially given I was in the fortunate position to be able to do so.

One of the luxuries of being retired is having the opportunity to stay healthy in a way that doesn’t feel like a grind. When I went back to a desk the last time I couldn’t believe the physical toll it took on me. I went from averaging 10,000 steps a day (without trying) to averaging 3,000. After sitting in front of a screen for eight hours, my body ached, I’d no notion of reading anything and the thought of heading to the gym was about as welcome as a dose of Covid. Working (or at least white collar, middle management working) is bad for your health. It’s one of the biggest reasons I’m not actively seeking employment right now. I tend to think of fitness now in the way I once used to think about investing, namely “This will do me good further down the line”. Most days, I see it a bit like shaving – I don’t like doing it, particularly, but I feel so much fresher after it and it sets me up for the next few hours with a positive mindset. 

For any readers who are struggling to take up some sort of fitness activity, I’d quote one of my favourite Chinese proverbs – “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.” Excluding the financial side of retirement, and maybe even including it, being fit in my old age is currently my absolute priority. No doubt I’ll be blogging in future about habits, routines and structure, in terms of what works for me and what doesn’t, but the habit of exercise is one I find difficult to argue with.

Back to the Future

I’m often motivated by Monevator, and the people who comment on the posts, and lately I was nudged to update this long dormant blog. I’d also been notified by WordPress that it was time to pay up for another year or close up permanently, so I chose the former. Having paid for it, I might as well use it. 

Just to recap, I originally started this blog when I retired at the (not quite so) early age of fifty-one and discovered that FIRE wasn’t exactly what I’d hoped it would be. I liked the FI part, but wasn’t so keen on how I was finding Retiring Early. In a nutshell, it certainly wasn’t worse than working, but on many days it certainly wasn’t any better either. Meanwhile the relentless optimism of many of the American FIRE bloggers began to rankle versus my experience and I thought I could write about how I was finding it difficult to reconcile the dream versus the reality.

To cut a long story short I eventually decided to go back to paid employment because I missed it. I found a job and stayed in it for the best part of the next six years. I would still be there had I not been made redundant in March last year. Given that I was now 57, given that my wife was retiring and given that I was even better placed financially than I was before, I decided that maybe retirement was worth another go. 

At that point I thought I might go back to blogging as a more committed retiree, but I still wasn’t sure that I actually was retired (and am still not!) What did I have to say though? Was FIRE still a thing? Could I credibly write about it if it was? On the other hand, was writing about “real” retirement something I, or anyone else, would be interested in writing and  reading? 

Resultantly I decided to give myself a bit more time to form any further opinions about full time retirement. As the months go by though, there’s no doubt that it’s still a curate’s egg. It’s like the opinion I eventually formed about “work life balance”. There’s no such thing, really, it’s all just “life”. It’s the same when you try to compare working life versus retirement – they’re both just “life” and what you do with it is essentially up to you.

On the other hand, I do find myself thinking that this retirement life does require you to stretch yourself a bit in different ways to what you did at work.. It requires more “self starting” as there’s nobody pushing you to do anything with your days.  You still need structure but you have to provide it for yourself. It’s almost like a job where you need to figure out priorities, goals and objectives for the days and weeks (which is a lot better than some idiot boss deciding them for you!) Then you have to work at them, commit to taking action and find things which are the right side of enjoyable. Just like at the office, some days you need to graft, some days you can coast and the more you can pepper your days with coffee breaks with friends and colleagues, the better!

One of the main observations about retirement that I read somewhere, and that has stuck with me, is that you need to actually try new things. It’s not enough to think, “I might join that stretching class at the gym.” You actually have to go and do it (and it’s so easy not to!) Even more awkward, you might have to arrange something yourself – start a book club, or an investment club, or a walking group and invite like minded people. This way lies rejection, so it’s much easier to wish that someone else would present you with things to do and meetings to attend, just like management does in your career. I used to like to think I was one of those “self starters” at work. Retirement has definitely challenged me to demonstrate that this is true. The stretching class at the gym – which I have attended – is generally full of older women. Very few men go along. Perhaps this is because it’s somewhat embarrassing to try and bend into a pose and hear your fellow attendees, or yourself, fart for England. Honestly, I’d much rather be in a class of blokes. So why don’t I start one? 

Having to work at retirement is maybe not a revelation to many people but I’d say that it has been an increasing revelation to me. Much as I’d love someone to fill my day with stuff that I like to do, it ain’t going to happen. It’s up to me. I certainly didn’t want to moan about retirement in a blog, but maybe I could share some of the challenges and what positive things I have found to come from them. Off the top of my head, in the last year I’ve learned loads about pensions and developed a hard-won withdrawal strategy that I’m finally comfortable with; I’m way fitter than I’ve ever been; I’ve massively expanded my cooking repertoire; I’ve discovered Youtube DIY videos and saved hundreds of pounds in repair costs; I’ve learned a bit about gardening; I’ve read more books than I ever have; I’ve worked hard to increase my social circle; in any given week I average 15,000 steps a day, double what I used to do when working; I make time for audiobooks and podcasts; my golf handicap….nah, you don’t want to know about that. I’m busy enough and not often bored, but another revelation is that the amount of time you have to do things in full-time retirement is incredible. When you hear people say they don’t know how they managed to fit everything in around a working life, I think that’s a reflection of suddenly realising how much time you have to fill when you’re not working eight hours a day, five days a week. It really is a luxury that you come to appreciate. But, like I say, I needed to, and still need to, work quite hard at appreciating it! 

Given this amount of time available, going back to blogging is now something I can do, so I’m going to give it a go. I’m not sure what I’ll write about, but given I never actually wrote much about “Sex, Health, Money, Death” the first time around, perhaps this time I can widen the scope! As I’ve just written, it’s actually doing something and taking action that counts…..