How to Spend Less Time at Work
Updated: Oct 4, 2022
Any night of the week in Nashville, TN, you can visit local bars to hear live music. I don’t mean the fun but Disney-esque Broadway District where you’ll hear daily and nightly “country music” that is largely for tourists. I mean everywhere else. Almost every bar in Nashville offers truly exceptional live music (country and otherwise). There, you’ll find fantastically talented musicians honing their strumming and songwriting for often tiny crowds, many of whom are other musicians. Other high-caliber musicians may double as your bartender or server. Most of the country singers you know played this Nashville circuit. Almost all of them are similarly talented to those performing there right now. Unfortunately, most of the talented performers in these bars will never make it.
With so much talent there, why have the same songs been on the radio for the last few decade? Is music so “competitive” that the burgeoning talent in Nashville simply can’t surpass that of the previous generation? Or, hasn’t it just always been this way, with lots of talent simply never managing to climb out of obscurity? More importantly, why don’t older musicians retire to enjoy their accumulated wealth and leave some space for young talent to emerge?
This fascinating piece was just published in The Atlantic discussing the increasing age of success in a variety of disciplines. The trends are seen in sports, film, the sciences, and elsewhere. While ageism detrimentally impacts many elderly folks (who also live without a consistent and meaningful social safety net in the US), the piece suggests that older folks are increasingly overrepresented at the highest tiers of “achievement”.
Ask your Boomer dad why this is and he might tell you that it takes that a long time to perform at such a high level. You might respond that Lebron James and Tom Brady have been performing at that level since they started. The discussion will have many nuances and going too deep will inevitably inspire acrimony. However, what’s lost in discussing how older folks can continue to perform at such high levels is the discussion about why they still want to be working at all.
What compels such high performers to keep showing up long after they are able to stop doing so? Why do athletes and musicians with hundreds of millions of dollars continue to make the sacrifices required of them to sustain such a high level of performance? Why do CEOs continue to work 80 hour weeks far into their twilight years? Is winning at sports, music, and finance so inherently valuable that those doing it are more fulfilled as the years go by and success accumulates? Is it the love of the work?
I want to add here the caveat that I think being Mick Jagger and headlining Rolling Stones tours is probably as much fun as you can have at any age. I fully expect that he is quite fulfilled every time he walks on stage. However, I think performers like Mick Jagger are the exception in terms of fun employment after 70. I don’t think 20 additional years of 80 hour weeks in the office after reaching CEO status offers the same thrill.
Older Americans, those at the upper echelons of finance and law and medicine, regularly work way past the point where they need to financially. Easily accessible retirement calculators would show them as much. So, why do they continue?
I think that the cultural shift leading Americans away from prolonged holidays has substantially limited the quality of life available to them after retirement. This is independent of the lack of a social safety net and it correspondingly impacts those across the spectrum of American inequity. I think this is true so much so that, for many Americans, the prospect of retirement is more daunting than the prospect of a life tied to perpetual employment.
Consider the decline of social communities. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam uses the loss of low stakes recreational opportunities (as well as the loss of influence among civic/social organizations) to explore the insidious disappearance of bowling leagues. Bowling leagues served as a cultural adhesive in many parts of America. Where once aging adults could gather and play and enjoy each other’s company, they now slide into social and civic isolation. In other places, churches or non-profit boards might’ve served a similar function but they're also disappearing.
At retirement, without community connections like those created by bowling leagues, churches, community service, or meaningful civic participation, retirees are left to stare down the void of aging, mortality. One might argue that social media makes it easier than ever to isolate oneself amidst the decline of in-person communities. Because the ripples of this community loss necessarily represent the loss of the community at large, those at the highest echelons are success are not spared. Wealth can facilitate many comforts, but it cannot substitute for the benefits accrued through participation in an active community.
The loss of community is as true for famous musicians as for athletes as for CEOs. So, after many tedious years in an office (or on small stages on the road or literally getting hit while carrying a leather ball), moving on may be scarier than sticking with a familiar suffering. Even without a Rolling Stones tour to headline, sticking around the office for a few more years may seem less daunting than the alternative.
Those achieving FIRE, often at relatively young age, face the isolation of retirement amidst a great and widespread cultural stagnation. This creates a number of problems, as we discuss throughout this blog!
It is completely reasonable to feel isolated after FIRE. However, using employment to avoid that isolation, rather than to dissect it, is the wrong path. Returning to work is the solution for some problems. However, working longer and harder is not the solution when the lack of community is the problem.
If you remain passionate about your work, keep doing it as long as it’s fulfilling. If it’s not doing it for you anymore, it’s okay to stop. If the prospect of stopping is daunting because you don’t know what lies on the other side, it’s time to start fashioning a plan. Almost everyone will face the isolation that comes when we’re no longer able to do what we’ve always done. If you think someday you’ll want to spend less time at work, it’s best to consider the implication of doing so before that time arrives!