When Ju and I made the call to get ourselves financially independent, in other words to remove the need to HAVE to exchange our time for money, we agreed we WOULD still work again, but on our terms. By this I mean, we’d not be forced to do jobs which we didn’t want to do, perhaps because we found them in conflict with our ideals, or because they involved more political wrangling/PowerPoint jockeying than actually doing anything useful. The idea was to give us enough money coming in to give us a great quality of life, but if we wanted to do something utterly, outrageously luxurious (like take a trip to the Antarctic), then we’d do whatever paid work we need to, to get the funds together.
So, it’s not really a surprise for us that I’m working again only two years after ‘retiring’, although we’re not doing it for the reasons we originally envisaged.
In those two years we travelled most of the time, taking in a couple of continents, driving our motorhome from the UK to Croatia, up through the Arctic, back to the UK, down to the edge of the Sahara and back home again. One principle of this blog is to be honest about the experience of living the kind of life we have, and I’ll stick to this idea now by openly admitting there were times during these tours where I simply didn’t want to continue.
We’d already spent about two years touring, so at the end we were pushing on towards four years of touring Europe and North Africa in a motorhome. The novelty of it had worn away, the extra-ordinary had become the ordinary, and the sensation of being stretched was eventually gone, or much reduced. We’ve toured a North African country during a state of emergency, visited a broad range of disturbing reminders of war and oppression, lived almost six months in the Muslim world, travelled (slowly) across a corner of Ukraine, and generally pushed ourselves to go to places we weren’t really comfortable going, not at first anyway.
It was quickly becoming clear to me that we (or I at least, Ju is far more relaxed about all of this) needed something different. Removing the pressing, urgent and ever-present need to earn money, to climb the greasy pole, to chase after the next shiny thing, to be at work almost all of the time, shone a light on an ever-unanswered question for me (for both of us to a degree):
What should we do with our precious, remaining weeks on Earth?
And that’s the main reason I’m back at work, I think: to give us time to think, to ponder this great existential question which is largely masked for most of us by the fact we’re just too busy to worry about it. We’re holed up in our part of the house in the UK which we kept for ourselves (we rent out the other bedrooms), which means we’re stationary, we don’t need to work out where we’re going each day. We’re close to friends and family. We’re within a few minutes walk of the town centre, which has a semi-village feel to it, only with loads of amenities. We’re comfortable here, safe, happy and are free to relax and think.
When we returned to the UK we knew we were about to lose our fabulous tenants who’d been renting one of our houses from us for 6 years (their CCJs had expired so they could buy their own place), and Ju spent a couple of weeks working on the empty place to get it ready for a new family. Electrics fully tested, roof and gutters maintained, mains-and-linked fire alarms fitted, porch lights replaced, repainted most rooms, cut the hedge, replaced some broken floor tiles and removed and replaced ageing silicon in the bathroom. That took up some of our time and energy, but it’s in good shape again and handed back to the agent now to manage again for us. Our shop has let out to a phone repair company, and our other tenants aren’t showing any signs of moving on, and we’ve no work to do on those properties. So we’ve been kept busy the past 2 or 3 weeks, but that initial work’s tailing off again now.
The job I’m doing is a contract, which is initially for two months, but is likely to last for at least three. I’m working for myself, which I find really suits me compared to being an employee, for a whole series of reasons but mainly because it doesn’t require the mental ‘buy-in’ of being an employee. I’m based from a combination of home, offices about 40 minute’s away and offices in central Dusseldorf (this isn’t glamorous by the way – international business travel is often simply a massive waste of resources, money and heartbeats), and I’m doing technical writing work which **should** make the lives of several thousands of people a little easier, which I like the idea of.
Working as a contractor also makes financial sense to me. Being an employee effectively means having your salary reduced by (perhaps roughly) half to take into account your employer’s additional overheads for PAYE staff: employer’s NI, holiday pay, sick pay, company car, company mobile, time off for training, the cost of training itself, paternity leave, maternity leave, employer pension contributions, the cost of inflexibility (needing to keep an employee even if their job isn’t really needed or paying redundancy) and other benefits. Even if you as an employee never take any time off sick or you don’t have a shiny BMW company car, you’re effectively paying for your colleagues that do. Ethically, this might sometimes be a good thing, but I wonder how many employees really consider how much their pay is reduced by the need to create these safety nets for themselves and those around them? Occasionally I hear mutterings about how much money contractors earn, although I suspect contractors cost companies about the same as employees, so I think few people have really pondered their true cost to the organisation they work for.
This idea of ‘dropping out’ from a career for two years or more, then simply ‘dropping back in’, would have been unthinkable to me a decade ago. Now I feel confident in it. My brain hasn’t turned to mush. My skill set hasn’t dissolved into dust. My ability to see things in a wider perspective has increased tenfold, as has my ability to empathise with people. I deliberately avoided being tied to any specific technology, knowing any technical knowledge would age quickly, so the information I have in my head remains broadly in date. I don’t think I’m special here by the way; I suspect many people would find the same thing: they could leave their jobs, travel for two years and come back with at least the same level of ability to pick up the same role. I know someone who was effectively promoted on their return to the workforce, after taking three years off work.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of heading back to work is the sudden immersion in a fog of pessimism, through which the sharp bullet-crack of cynical comments fly. Overall I like the office environment I’m in. The people are friendly and open, there’s plenty of free parking and I get free tea and coffee. There are more than enough people there who really don’t want to be there though, who are resigned to doing something they don’t want to do for at least another decade or two, which I find hard to listen to. In the main I keep quiet about the thought which holds sway in my noggin: “if you really hate the place so much, change your life, for the sake of your health, your family, your happiness, change”.
I used to think the big corporate I worked for was, in some sense, evil. They’d trapped me in a job I felt a growing hatred towards. I had to waste so much time on pointless activity, doing quarterly performance grading for 15 engineers for example, when we all knew everyone would always end up with an ‘average’ rating. As team managers we were all once asked to train our teams on how to walk up and down the stairs, after someone tripped in high heels and long trousers and hurt themselves. I recall the year-long wrangle over ‘harmonising’ (downgrading) everyone’s terms and conditions, which was voted down by 95% of the staff, another utter and utterly predictable waste of time. At one point I was simply told: “you’ll be spending much of your time in Germany from now onward”, there was no choice given, so I left that part of the company. But I felt I couldn’t leave completely, or I’d lose my final salary pension, my share options, and I felt I’d never get another job, such was my sense of being institutionalised.
These days I’ve isolated myself from most of this stuff by taking control back, mainly by us setting up our finances so I’m not dependant on the ‘company’. If they don’t pay me, I don’t lose my house. If they outsource the IT department to a company which makes 95% of the staff redundant and shifts the jobs to India and Eastern Europe (this happened to my ex colleagues), they don’t hurt me. If I do a bad job, my contract isn’t renewed. If I’m ill, I don’t get paid. If I need training, I have to pay for it myself. I feel more in control, which is critical to my well-being it turns out, despite the downsides.
So, what will we do with the money? Hmmmm. Something I’ve long learned: being financially free at 43 is a very different thing to traditional retirement. Traditionally we’d have worked until we were (maybe) 60. We’d then convert our pension funds into annuities, which would guarantee a level of income for as long as we were alive. ‘Retiring’ a couple of decades early means this approach isn’t available to us. For at least a decade, and probably for more, our income will be variable (depending on house occupancy, repair costs, rents, and share dividends) and will not be guaranteed. We’ve built in safety nets to allow for this (large cash emergency fund, liquid assets in shares which we could sell if really necessary, the ability to live on less in bad times), but there is no guarantee we won’t be forced back into work we don’t want to do. Having a larger amount of money behind us reduces this possibility, although in the end it’s hardly a massive hardship for us to do part-time jobs or seek out other ways to make money if things went really pear-shaped.
Finishing up, to summarise an answer to the blog post’s question, I’m back at work as:
- Travelling full time was no longer a stretch. It wasn’t a challenge. We’ll certainly do more of it, but just keeping on leisure travelling for endless years wasn’t appealing to us.
- We needed some time to work out what we want to do next.
- I no longer see ‘work’ in the same way as the bad old days. I like being freelance.
- The additional income will create an even-larger safety net to the one we currently have.
Ju’s opted not to go back to work in the same way I have. She has her own business where she is partnered with the Utility Warehouse, she introduces folks to a discount club so they can save money on their household bills. You can think of this as like working for Avon, only she gets a small percentage of people’s bills as long as they stay customers, like royalties paid to a musician. She can dip in and out of this as she wants to, and has many of the same advantages of the contracting approach I’ve taken (only with a lot more day to day flexibility, and she has no boss at all). Again the money from this source is a ‘nice to have’ for us, so there’s no huge pressure to earn, and the company has a positive-thinking ethos at its heart, which is more than a little refreshing.