Post of the Day
February 1, 2000
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Unwritten Rules of Wage Slavery
The purpose of the Retire Early approach to personal finance is not to stop working. After all, even golf requires exertion from time to time, so it meets one test of what constitutes "work." Moreover, some people golf for money, so it surely is considered work in some circumstances. And without mentioning any specific job descriptions, it seems clear to me that golf is more "productive" a use of time than many modern-day "jobs."
Doing charity work, writing the great American novel, spending time playing with your kids�all of these activities are at times performed for pay (when done by individuals who don't want to be doing them?) and thus can fairly be called "work" (when done by those of us who choose doing them for free over doing other things for pay).
So the purpose is not to avoid work. The purpose instead is to stop the need for paid employment. Why is paid employment such a bad thing? Well, in many cases it's not. A great many people consider their jobs to be the best thing going in their lives. The problem that the Retire Early philosophy aims to solve is that there is a risk in depending on paid employment for the money you need to live. Until you reach the day when you are independent of the need to work for pay, someone owns you.
This hard truth is taboo and so we have constructed customs and fables to hide knowledge of it. The principal fable is the idea that we engage in work as the result of a bargain reached with our employers�we offer our time and they offer pay in return. In reality, the bargain is rarely on equal terms. You wouldn't know that by listening to the official sources and their talk of how employees are "part of the family" and how talented employees "can write their own ticket" in today's market. It's only the Unwritten Rules that reveal how lop-sided the bargain usually is.
|"So the purpose is not to avoid work. The purpose instead is to stop the need for paid employment."|
Rule One: You Have To Say "Pretty Please" To Take Vacation Time. Vacation time is just another form of pay, at least in theory. So why are so many of us unable to take the time we have earned? Because employers don't think of us as free agents who have struck a deal with them. They think of us as fortunate souls they have taken pity on. Or at least that's how they want to think of us.
Making us play the game of asking for time off, and of giving up some of that earned time as a sacrifice to the employment gods in thanks for their ongoing benevolence, is a way of letting us know where we stand. In short, we are the ones who do the asking and they are the ones who do the giving, even when dealing with an item of compensation that both parties acknowledge has been earned.
Rule Two: Work Is The Norm, Personal Life Is The Exception. Since my first job, I have made it a practice to take one week of annual leave in the Spring to get back into my running routine and to catch up on reading projects. I've found that many employers (and even some fellow employees) look askance at the idea of an employee taking time off that is not directed to a "real vacation" (apparently, one involving travel and added expense).
I've come to believe that expensive vacations constitute no threat to the work routine�the employee is letting off some stress, but it is clear that he would not be able to continue to live at the spending level required during vacations, and thus it is clear he will be coming back. It's like a strange marriage where the husband is allowed to cheat so long as he does not form any meaningful relationships with other women. But I very much have�and always mean to have�a meaningful relationship with many non-work activities. That's sometimes cause for suspicion in a system which smiles on those "married" to their jobs.
Rule Three: You're Not Here To Have Fun. When I first got out of school, I was thrilled to be doing to work I was doing. When paychecks would be distributed, instead of grousing like some of the long-time employees, I would make comments to the effect of "Gosh, is it really time to get paid again? It seems like they are always handing out checks around here!" OK, I enjoy taking the contrary view. But the underlying emotion was that I really did enjoy my work and very much did not ever want to fall in a trap of not enjoying it.
Employers don't outright prohibit displays of positive emotion over the job. I have come to believe, however, that they are more comfortable with the employee who gripes while behaving in a predictable way. Those having too much fun, like those lean, hungry men that plagued Julius Caesar, are dangerous.
Rule Four: Free Agents Need Not Apply. When I was on one of those one-week non-vacations, I went in to the office one afternoon to catch up on some filing. My boss quickly became agitated over my presence and started asking questions as to what I was doing and when I expected to leave. Breakthrough Thought: your boss is probably more concerned about maintaining the ability to control you than he is about your efficiency or productivity!
|"The threat is real, in my view. And the threat is aimed at the heart of a system of control..."|
We are starting to see this rule challenged by companies that hire contractors or temps. Even today, though, many companies do not feel comfortable doing this, or do it only for functions where it seems safe to yield some control. And how many companies pay employees far in excess of the hourly rate paid to contractors to keep "their own" staff? I wonder why.
Rule Five: You Have To Buy At The Company Store. Many companies frown on employees not using the firm's product or the products of clients of the firm. Or apply subtle pressure on employees to support political leaders friendly with the industry, or company causes or charities. Or to go on company adventure weekends or buy the company stock and root for the home team. For the most part, this is no big deal. But the underlying thought--that when you sell your time you sell a bit of your freedom to make decisions about issues in your personal life as well�is unsettling.
I don't expect the company I work for to share my tastes in food or music�I view the relationship as a business transaction, nothing more, nothing less. But prospective employees are well advised not to press the point over these "little things" when interviewing a new employer. Generally, pay is negotiable and not much else. So it's always the employee who makes adjustments to fit the company profile, never the other way around.
Perhaps I've overstated the case a bit. Many people have well-compensated and fulfilling jobs in the year 2000 in America. Exploitation of the type experienced in coal mines is a thing of the past for many of us, and we should be grateful for it. But the human spirit will always look for more--more significance, more accomplishment, more independence. When people react in horror to the idea of Early Retirement (and they do), I suspect that they sense a threat to The Established Way of Doing Things.
The threat is real, in my view. And the threat is aimed at the heart of a system of control sketched out in the Unwritten Rules noted above. Work is good, and most early retirees are not going to stop working. Most of use are not devoting our energies to construction of a Retire Early plan to free up more time for crossword puzzles and syndicated comedies. But the work we do after that magical day will be done on different terms. And that will make all the difference.
Early Retirees of the World Unite!
You Have Nothing to Lose but Your Health Benefits!
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