Abnormal behavior

Retirement is an unnatural act.

Perhaps more accurately it is the final act (before the curtains close) in a series of unnatural events that punctuate our modernity. In the extremely short period of time that the concept of retirement has been around it has managed to become so ingrained into our psyche that we don’t even consider that what we are doing is contrary to our biology or even just contrary to basic reasoning and logic.

Let me start my tirade with the industrial revolution. Arguably this is the time where things went both really right for us (as a species). And also really wrong. Although maybe we can just skip the evolutionary anthropology paragraph and just agree that we are not designed to wake up early, caffeinate ourselves to a point of bare minimum functionality, commute to a place (that we hate) where we sit all day in a cubicle farm, under artificial light, replying to email. After which we come home, expose ourselves to more artificial light, sleep for six hours and then repeat the entire process… For forty five years.

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We are essentially large hairless primates. Primates that can cooperate effectively to get stuff done, but basically we are still monkeys. In the wild primates live in large family groups, as did Homo Sapiens, until very recently (on the universal time scale). In fact imagine for a moment that we lived now as we had evolved to. As opposed to all the craziness we have foisted on ourselves. What would that look like?

As a social mammal I would have grown up in a large communal home with my grandparents, my parents and all my siblings. Lets just pretend it’s always worked like this. (in my utopian analogy there are strong property rights and everyone believes in Libertarianism, ha ha) Because our family has never moved, that land belongs to us ergo we have managed to harness potentially the biggest factor in financial independence, inter generational wealth. We pool our resources and share assets like communal appliances and cook communal meals. In fact because there is no food scarcity in our modern world (ie we don’t have to grow our own food or hunt for it), the savings associated with living in community and the level of technology available to us we find that we would hardly have to work at all.

This is obviously in direct opposition to the way we live now. We can’t wait to move out  and get indebted buying our own home. (after getting indebted getting a usually completely useless degree so we can get our awesome cubicle job) Then we have to repurchase everything we had had while we lived with our parents, and then have to work like crazy to afford all this new stuff. If we are considered savvy we save and invest our money so that we can afford to ‘retire’ in our twilight years before spending our final chapter surrounded by strangers in some palliative care facility that our kids have picked out for us on Google. (likely the first or second entry, after all who has the time to scroll anymore)

Not only do we see nothing wrong with living like this, we embrace it. We endeavour to  become a valuable commodity to those who want to sell us pension plans and tiny homes in sleepy sea-side towns.

In a tribal culture you don’t move out. When you procreate your tribe helps to raise your children. When you get old you don’t get sent off to a ‘home’ to die quietly, you live out your life surrounded by your family and the people you love.

OMG. I hate my parents. They drive me mad. And you’re suggesting I live in close proximity to them… forever?

And, I suppose, therein lies the rub.

On the one hand we are encouraged towards independence, we fight for control, seek out power and dominion over others… all the things that make habitat cohabitation socially challenging.  Yet until recently this is how we lived. In some cultures it’s still how people live. It’s just my Western culture seems to have forgotten how to live this way. We perpetuate a broken system that splits up our family’s, destroys our social bonds and makes us poorer, both in monetary terms and in quality of life.  It makes no sense.

I think the misconception is that only new age hippy families live like this. Or poor people. And that you either have to live in a teepee in the woods next to a rusted out Buick or in single room corrugated shack in a shanty. The truth is with modern architecture we can design dwellings that make communal living a breeze. We’d have more money, more free time and likely lead better, more social lives with better mental health.

Probably.

I think we might already be too far gone. Become too self involved. We have taken our biggest asset as a species, our ability to communicate and cooperate and made it redundant. Imagine the possibilities if we worked together like we were meant to instead of trying to do everything on our own. I think that would be quite something.

Perpetuating the imperfect system

My heading for this blog post was going to be, ‘Saving for retirement’, but considering how I feel about the topic, that seems disingenuous at best. Also a reader may mistakenly surmise that this is a post about personal finance (It mostly isn’t).

I should probably mention that I have nothing against the word ‘for’. As a preposition it is totally functional and relatively useful. ‘Saving’ is also fine, as a stand-alone concept. I think everyone should try it at least once. But ‘retirement’ is an awful, malignant word. Grouped together these words form (more or less) the basis for everything that is wrong with the world…. ok, I will grant you some notable exceptions. Like… global warming and short people. Debating however, why such things should be allowed to exist is to question the divine. (which is another blog post)

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Saving for retirement on the surface seems like a very reasonably exercise. But really it’s an elaborate form of masochism. Emphasis on the word ‘Saving’. I have far less issue with building a flexible income generating asset base that can last into perpetuity (through something like entrepreneurship).

Having a lot of money when you choose to retire is obviously really nice. And having more cash when you retire is obviously better than having less cash. But have you really ever considered what retirement actually entails? Besides sitting around and counting down the hours before your inevitable foamy, gurgly demise in some (cheap) palliative care facility your kids picked out for you.

Why do you want to retire anyway? Doesn’t this mean you’ve bought the program? They sold you the kool-aid. And you drank deep. You’re on step eight of your ten-step life! Next stop… smelling like the soon to be deceased and death. Some people like to imagine step nine is travel and Caribbean cruises… but its not. It’s a weird musty smell… and having suspicious looking growths zapped off your wrinkled, sun damaged skin by a dermatologist and penciling funerals into your diary every weekend as your friends and family kick off. Sounds awesome, I can’t wait. Basically I have to save and invest for my whole entire life in anticipation of this event? Seems like a great way to spend the time allocated to me.

How many happy retirees do you know personally that are getting after it? You know… living the dream? Count them on your fingers. I’ll wait… I’m willing to wager less than a handful and that’s only if you move in impressive circles. Would you swap your life currently for their life? They have money after all.

Let’s segue into something else and ramble on about science for a bit, because science is awesome. And finance is just okay. When it comes to retirement we are (mostly) using outdated models and concepts that were struck in the fifties. Expected life span. You see we all have just one lap. Lets say its four hundred meters… only half way through the race someone in a white lab-coat has changed it to 800 meters.

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My expected death is age 78. Statistically speaking. I’ve just turned 40…. Which feels $%#^@& ancient. Some days I wonder how people who are 50 get out of bed in the morning without painkillers.

Only my life expectancy is probably not 78. It’s probably closer to 100. Mind you for the proletariat its still 78. In fact probably less. I’ll probably be in a position to afford the miracles of science that are coming. The nano-machines. The new organs (with modifications). The rejuvenation clinics. The implants that tell me three days in advance that I’m going to have a heart attack (just enough time to pop down to the clinic and have flawless robotic surgery and a flat white). My two daughters will likely live to be 120… maybe longer. And for their children death maybe something that only happens to poor or unlucky people. Death is unlikely to be egalitarian forever.

Imagine at age 60 you’re going to have live another… 40 years off your retirement funds. That’s a really long time to be running down your assets. Sure, you might have a metric-fuck-tonne of money, or be an adherent of some or other ideology (like the 4% rule) or you might just conjure up a dystopian future where we trade cigarettes and blowjobs for dirty brown water and blighted potatoes, so really, what’s the point?

Round about now you might imagine this rant is against investing and pro-Epicurism. Let’s work forever and blow our money on whiskey, cigars and the experience economy. Let’s consume to the point where we need a self-storage unit to contain our ever burgeoning collection of stuff.

Its not.

My issue is more about how we look at our lives. We get these social norms and this corporate nonsense pumped down our throats as soon as we’re born. This is your life!

  1. Get born. 2. Go to school. 3. Get a degree (get into debt). 4. Get a job. 5. Work nine am to five pm 6. Buy a house (you can’t afford) 7. Buy a car (you don’t need) 8. Breed. 9. Retire. 10. Die.

Instead of retirement shouldn’t we be punting a concept of designing our lives better? At the moment the way we use our money doesn’t make any sense. We kill ourselves to hoard our money away for a period in our lives where we can’t really make full use of it anymore. Or we blow it all and use whatever we earn to finance our debt. Perhaps I am decrying the lack of some middle ground alternative.

Is this just some terrible burden we’ve all taken on where we actively try (and very often succeed) to defer our lives. Money (and by association our investments) should be the scaffolding we use to build our lives around, not some weird end game strategy.

I used to believe in the whole retirement fairy tale. I mean it’s worked for my old man. (hasn’t it?) He sits around, reading, pottering around in his workshop, annoying his offspring, bickering with my mother and watching hours of network news. Slowly he is trickling down his funds to zero or close to that…  a fuse burning down towards the great white light and the acrid burning smell of litigation (when his children will murder each other for the scraps of his estate)

We imagine free-form days as the ultimate reward after a long hard trek through life. But in reality nothing is more frightening (and potentially dull). When did being old and rich somehow morph into something to aspire to?

Young and rich would obviously be better. And middle aged and rich would be the compromise position between the two extremes. In reality none of those outcomes are very likely, although we are constantly told that outliers in this field can be studied and emulated (just buy our book). In our post-industrial revolution lives we are more like cogs in a very big machine, all grinding on in the same direction on some predetermined path unable to alter our destiny.

This is not a blog post about solutions. Besides, who am I to make any form of judgement call about anyone else’s life and how they plan on spending it? For the most part I’m just wondering out loud about my own unique circumstances and a system that I’ve decided is stupid. Or maybe this is just long form justification for a (mostly theoretical) lifestyle decision that I a trying embrace.

In any event I do think it’s something worth thinking about. Broadly this post is about future proofing yourself. (you know for when the robots come). And not being complacent in our assumption that the status quo will simply continue ad infinitum.