I want to introduce you to some young(er) retirees.
Meet Janet McAllister;
She is proudly semi-retired at 36. In fact, she hasn’t had a fulltime job for nearly 10 years and has no intention of getting one.
She pays her way with a weekly arts column in the NZ Herald, along with theatre reviewing, and a part time job in the CBD within walking distance of her rented apartment, which she shares with her partner, step-daughter and two flatmates. Janet does not have or want a mortgage, or children of her own. All up, she works professionally 3.5 to 4 days a week.
I wanted to hear more about how this marvellous woman managed to avoid the mainstream and create her own formula for idyllic living:
Can you explain why you have chosen to semi retire so early?
We’re all given a certain amount of time, the question is, what are we going to do with that time?
We use some of that time to accrue money primarily to survive, then for material stuff and extras in an effort to enhance our lives, and perhaps we give some away. Then we save the rest of the money to turn into leisure time for the future.
If – like me – you are incredibly fortunate and earn more than the average wage, then you don’t have to work fulltime to earn enough to live on, have extras and save. If you work part time, you just have fewer extras and savings than a few other financially fortunate people. And I’d prefer to have more time for other non-paid work and leisure time, than more travel or whatever. (Working less than full time shouldn’t be a privileged position in our financially well-off country, but it is.)
There is a risk associated with that typical “9-5 til 65” model that isn’t always acknowledged. What if you can’t use that time you’ve saved for the future? What if you don’t want to use that time entirely for leisure? It feels to me like there is always a postponing of joy, we are waiting for the reward, which is always just out of reach.
I think people need to consider what they are missing out on right now by following that model of working fulltime and then entering full retirement much later in life. It will work for many people of course, but I would guess not for all who are following it.
My model is a bit different. Instead of working hard and delaying play, it’s a smoother path without a jolt from one mode to the other at 65 – which is becoming less common anyway. I’m not ever going to fully retire, because my work is not very physically demanding, and I enjoy it. So I’m not going to have exhausted myself or be burnt out after a lifetime of working hard.
Economic capital is overvalued and over-emphasised. We have a professionalisation of society where so many things in our lives are now paid for or outsourced.
I have more satisfaction by being more available to my family and friends when they need someone. Right now lots of my friends are having babies and also several of them have parents who have died recently. I have a bit more time than most people to visit them or ring them up, and my schedule is flexible enough to drop everything quickly if needs be in a crisis. In other words, I have exchanged a bit of economic capital for a lot more cultural and social capital.
I see myself as an amateur (taken from the French meaning of the word – ‘lover of’). I do things for the love of it – whether that’s things I also receive money for, like writing my column, or other activities which I don’t turn into money, like proofreading friends’ PhD theses. Also, I am completely unambitious to “further” my career. That might usually have a negative tinge to it, but I don’t care – it means I am very satisfied!
You’re a grown up. Do you feel a certain expectation to work fulltime and/or buy a house like most ‘grown ups’ do?
There are certain situations in which society says it’s okay not to do fulltime paid work, for example, if you have small children or if you’re a student. If those people can manage to provide for themselves then I can certainly afford to not work fulltime. Why shouldn’t I continue with that lifestyle? It’s a choice – as it is for all of us.
I think deciding to buy a house is a big decision and I didn’t want to do that. I am very aware of what I’m doing, although “not buying a house” wasn’t a grand master plan or anything like that. To me it seems very lightly unconventional. I’m not leading a revolution from the suburbs – as much as I might wish to! Basically I’m risk averse, and I see getting a mortgage as a risk. All that debt! Yes I’m taking another type of risk, but it’s one that I’m more comfortable with.
Your parents haven’t pressured you to ‘settle down’ get a mortgage and have kids?
No, never. I understand that other people have pressure put on them and that’s stressful. But my parents have never put that sort of pressure on me – and I think most families are more-or-less relaxed about these kinds of things. But tolerance and support doesn’t write headlines, so we only hear about situations where people are upset.
Do you have any investments?
I contribute the maximum to Kiwisaver automatically through my employer (8%).
What risks are you taking by living this sort of life?
If at some point in the future I don’t have my health, then admittedly at this point I’m relying on the health system to pick up. No matter what you do, there is a risk. What everybody does is a risk – buying a house, buying shares, it’s all risky. Life is risky!
Do people get jealous of you?
I hope it allows other people to think, okay there are different ways of doing things. I hope they start thinking: “well if she can, why can’t I? Maybe I can!”
Although, let’s be clear, this is a middle class privilege. If I was on minimum wage (currently $14.25) or even quite a bit more than that, there’s no way I could do work the relatively low hours I do.
I’m very aware that there are people who are working fulltime or longer and still can’t afford to put food on the table or keep a roof over their heads – let alone buy a house.
As well as earning an above-average wage, you also need to be working in a somewhat sympathetic industry. This is starting to happen in parts of the UK where one or two councils now advertise traditional fulltime jobs as fulltime or part time, and that creates definite bonuses for both employers and workers.
What personal qualities do you need for this lifestyle?
None in particular. It’s very normal really.
Do you have any consumer vices?
My lifestyle isn’t very expensive, I can’t see myself spending more in the future. My only consumer vices are books! Which are mostly second hand anyway.
Any suggestions for someone in a 9-5 job who is curious about the semi-retired lifestyle?
Do the maths! Ask yourself, ‘how much am I really gaining from spending this extra money?. What is more free time worth to me?’ For example, when I work harder (by picking up extra freelance editing work) I find I buy more convenience and treats for myself because I’m more tired, which tends to negate somewhat the benefits of the extra money.
You look at all your options and decide what you want more of and less of. People need to put time on the table. It’s seen as such a luxury to have time off each week – but for the middle class, it’s really not that out of reach.