15 Years in Semi-Retirement- How is it Going?

JD Roth at MoneyBoss.com kindly asked me to reflect on semi-retirement, a path I’ve been on now for 15 years.  A version of this article was published there in late 2016.

One thing is sure, plenty of people are interested in semi-retirement these days.  I recently even heard it has its own buzzy millennial nickname, Semi-Re.  Between exhortations to put in 4-Hour Work Weeks or “LifeHack” the big project of earning a living there is ample evidence that people are considering alternatives to the traditional 40-year full-time career arc.

I should know:  At age 42 in 2001 I left full-time work to embark on a self-funded post-career lifestyle that involved doing some sort of part-time work-like activity to keep me challenged and engaged, and help close the budget gaps.  I wrote a book about it 5 years later (Work Less, Live More) popularizing the term Semi-Retirement in the second edition which came out in 2008.  I had started a digital design firm in 1994 and sold it into the dot-com frenzy, which left me with a bad case of burnout and a full retirement savings account, so it seemed the right time to pull the plug. 

But does it work?  And what has it been like for me and my family?

The quick answer is that Yes, it can and does work – the investing approach I’ve been using, outlined in Work Less, Live More, has sustained our spending and kept us whole in real terms vis a vis the day my wife and I quit work in early 2001.  We sometimes say our savings have simply allowed us to have part-time, low-paid but intrinsically fun and meaningful jobs at a time when the normal people in those jobs can’t actually make ends meet or really enjoy them as a result.

My wife works 10 or 15 hours a week in a large specialty women’s clothing store, staying connected to her interests in fashion and spending time being with a younger generation of women--  her co-workers and managers.  I embarked on a long-dreamed of career as an artist, going to art school, building a sculpture studio and showing and selling my work everywhere from Hong Kong and Paris to trendy art fairs in Miami or galleries in Chelsea. 

It’s right-sized for my time and interests – I’ve certainly had 15-hour days and 80-hour weeks at times but mostly I putter around mornings then go into the studio after lunch for an active afternoon sculpting, and am parked on the couch at night just like the rest of the country.  I sigh, like all artists, that I don’t have as many sales as I’d hoped after an art fair or gallery show, but then pinch myself and remember that the art itself is getting better, the creating of it deeply meaningful, and our financial needs still adequately covered by our Safe Withdrawal Rate and savings.

We have been a close family – our two sons, (now 21 and 25) who were shortchanged for Mom & Dad time during the 90’s were able to spend a lot more time with us after that.  More in fact than they probably wanted by the time high school and college rolled around, lol.  Lost time away from the kids, business trips and long hours at the office, had scarred me deeply and was probably the driving force pushing me into the early retirement decision.  So we bought a boat and took plenty of family vacations, and there was always time to play catch or Frisbee while the kids were growing up.

I also got into yoga and spent more time working out than the average executive could ever hope to.  Staying fit takes time and energy, and I had that.  We also have been very into healthful eating and cooking meals at home.  As the years go by and I can eat less and less without adding pounds, eating really exciting, well-made food has been something of a compensation.

The house, bigger now than empty-nesters need after in-laws and kids have moved out, requires plenty of work but is a source of enduring pleasure for us.  The gardens and grounds are Edenic.  We entertain a lot at home, and the studio I built on the property a few years back has made me something of a homebody, gladly so.    I have the time to think, to read, to putter and still get my errands done and art created.  Mornings inevitably involve a long read of the Wall St Journal over a big cup of strong coffee, looking out on the gardens and digesting what’s happening out in the world. 

Art has been a good avenue for opening up that world further:  thanks to GPS it’s easy to get around the sorts of areas (all over Brooklyn, for instance) where artists  tend to settle.  We’ve met lots of young, interesting people, and enjoyed at least 10 trips a year to art-selling or exhibition locations where my work is being shown:  art fairs in Miami or fine craft fairs around the Northeast, international symposia in Europe or Asia.  It’s always more fun to travel with a purpose, we’ve found, and weaving art and travel together has been a hit, something my wife and I often do together.

Our marriage is no doubt stronger for having gone down the Semi-Re path.  I’m convinced a lot of marriages founder just out of need for more time and energy for each other, which can be so difficult to find when juggling full-time work, commutes and the inevitable life-maintenance overheads that everyone has to attend to.  We often look at full-time working friends, especially those at the lower rungs on the pay ladder and wonder how people can possibly hold it all together given the stresses.  So we recognize the gift we have been able to give ourselves of time, and the extra bit of cash it sometimes takes to keep irritants at bay:  a parking ticket doesn’t ruin our day or cause us to fight, but the irony is we have more time to drive around to find a parking spot in the first place so the issue just doesn’t come up.

Our social lives are active with rich friendships among people and couples of all age groups in our community.    We are active with community groups and volunteer for the things we care about, feeling connected to our town and the people in it.  There was never any time for this during the full-time work years.  Now I crop up regularlyin the local paper for one project or another, usually for helping bring sculptor friends’ work to our town for temporary installations around our parks and public areas.

All that probably sounds idyllic, and it is.  But there are things cropping up 15 years in which I feel warrant mentioning, since they have caught me somewhat off guard.  Not complaining, but simply put out there in the interest of full disclosure. 

My concerns are not financial – we have all we need and have kept our lifestyles in check.  Friends are definitely showing up with the flash cars (Maseratis and Teslas being the new It-Bag for my male peers) and some really nice 2nd and 3rd homes.  This is not a problem for me – I always knew it would happen and am not wired up to envy them or feel left out.

The issue that is concerning though comes down to questions of identity and accomplishment.  Getting out of the fast lane a decade or two before your peers means some of them will go on to become big dogs at a time when you’re feeling more like a Chihuahua.   (It’s really rare to be a big dog in the art world, especially for a late-bloomer like me.   Most artists subsist on the joy of creating and the satisfaction of nudging a body of work out into the public sphere to some admiring fans and a few sales.)  

I’ve always had the respect of my still-working friends – they like having a window into my aesthetic, alternative lifestyle and admire the chutzpah it took to walk out on the System and chart my own course.  Still, the fact is that on conventional metrics they have gone further and achieved more in their extra years, allowing them now, as they approach traditional retirement age, to play the next few decades at a level I had not really foreseen and which is in all fairness closed off to me. 

For example, friends who are embarking into their 60s with large career accomplishments are becoming directors of significant public companies, an idealsemi-retirement role.  Others who have done well financially are in a position to engage in philanthropy at a level I simply cannot.  In addition to the genuine good they are doing through their gifts they are invited into advisory roles where they can help steer the charities’ vision and activities, deeply meaningful for them and again, ideal for those in semi-retirement. 

These sorts of post-operational roles, which are available to those descending from visible traditional achievements in their professional lives, also carry distinction which keeps the older semi-retiree feeling valued, respected and useful in a significant way, and connected to other high-achievers.    At times my path can come up short in this area – I’m certainly appreciated and respected in the circle of people I’m involved with but that can sometimes feel rather quiet or small.  I did understand intellectually that this could happen, 15 years ago, and appreciate it’s the direct result of choices I’ve made to pursue a quieter, more introspective path, but I am experiencing what’s closing off now for the first time in a palpable way. 

Of course many readers will have no interest in embarking on any kind of high-profile semi-retirement activity.  Let me have a quiet place to do what I want and leave the living large to others!   But plenty of early-retirees got the savings to make that possible specifically because they are high-achieving, high-energy, even visionary people.  Now they want it all – relaxing more, yet still feeling connected and needed, and this simply might not be possible if you drift away from the limelight for an extended period. 

My own journey has been to finally follow my original credo and actually "Work Less, Live More"!  It is surprisingly refreshing to let go of all these needs for achievement and recognition.  Just getting less done and being OK with it, at last.  Is that so awful?

Given all this though my new extra advice for would-be early retirees, with the benefit of 15 years on this path is: Before shifting into the slow lane, for all its benefits, consider your own needs for recognition and impact - being valued-  and decide whether it’s going to be a fit for you long term, or whether you should opt for something closer to your original career, only in shorter-hour form- part-time, consultant, director.  That can let you hold onto the rolodex, the capital you have built within a field of work, and thus retain more of the recognition and engagement you may find you'd miss if you were to completely remove yourself to something entirely different.