I’m financially free in my mid-40s, but I’m missing work, why?

March 7, 2018

Jason

We’re into our third year of financial freedom now, aged 45, and I’m finding my thoughts increasingly drawn towards returning back to full time work.

Why is this, I wonder? Our lives are, by most standards, pretty amazing. We don’t need to work for money. We can head off in our motorhome whenever we wish. We can just take it easy here in the UK, and do as we want, when we want.

So what’s missing? Why this urge to head back to work? Am I going slightly mad?

Quick Background

Ju and I were both employed by a multi-national utility company back in 2011, me as a project manager, and Ju managed a team marketing utilities to businesses. Apologies for the cliché: we were well-off, but unfulfilled. Over the past three years we’d been aggressively paying down our mortgage. Once that was cleared, we saved enough to fund a year’s travel, and handed our notices in (more reasons for this below).

Two year’s later, having fine-tuned our frugality skills to stretch the money over a second year, we came home with just an emergency fund left. Renting a house and working as freelancers, we used the income to fund a renovation on an old butcher’s shop with an attached two-bed house, while we consumed as many personal finance blogs and books as we could get our hands on. A plan we developed to get to the point of being financially-free came together far more quickly than we expected it to, and by 2015 we’d hit tipping point – with enough investment income coming in to fund our still-frugal lives. There’s a free eBook mini-guide which covers this lot in more detail BTW, available here:

Since then we’ve spent another 18 months on the road, returning to the UK in summer 2017 after topping out at Norway’s Northcape up in the Arctic, and bottoming out at the oasis town of Icht, on the northern edge of the Sahara in Morocco. I’d been offered a contract in Nottingham, which I took up and completed in four months last autumn. Since then we’ve completed some freelance video production work, filming in Glasgow, Torquay and Ireland before doing post-production back at home, and we’ve helped out with DIY here and there for friends and family. We’re not exactly up to our necks in it.

Why I Quit Work in the First Place

I’ve long tried to self-analyse and understand why I wanted to quit my career in the first place, after all it was very good to me over the years. There were periods of high stress (the manager who used to scream, go bright red and throw things across the room comes to mind), but on the whole it was safe, comfortable and rewarded me well, in terms of skills and money at least.

To recap quickly: after completing a degree, I spent six months as a labourer to fund a five month round the world trip. I’d already lined up a funded PhD when I returned, based in Grenoble in the France Alps. For personal reasons, I only lasted for three months or so before heading back home and finding myself working as a technical writer. My career then carried me along through various IT-related jobs in four companies until I was project managing million-pound efforts in corporate data centres. It wasn’t as high-powered as I might be making it sound, but as part of a big company with head offices in Germany, business travel was increasingly becoming the norm. At one point I had a manager in Germany, who was a great guy, but I hardly ever met him 1-2-1 in nearly two years.

Coming from a working class background, none of this came naturally to me, and I constantly struggled with confidence, regardless of whatever ability I had. This was probably the single biggest reason for me quitting in the end – my own lack of confidence to tackle what I saw as inefficient, and generally poor management above me. I could bang on about pointless projects, commuting, red tape, performance reviews, weak and sometime hilarious HR policies, whatever, but in the final reckoning I suspect my own lack of confidence was my downfall/saviour*.

The final straw came when someone several pay grades higher than me, who’d managed to spectacularly bungle a year’s effort failing to set up a large project, instructed me to start spending millions in a “just get it spent, dammit” style order. I sat there and nodded, subdued, but angry. A lot of money was about to be blown to satisfy board-level executives that we were doing ‘something’. They’d see nothing for their investment, but for a series of fancy PowerPoint packs designed specifically to hide the fact nothing of value was being given back to the company. I wasn’t about to have my name on those slides.

A few weeks later (we were giving up a lot, and I anguished over the choice), I resigned.

Why Not Just Change Career?

An obvious and valid challenge at this point would be this: why not just find another career? Something I would find fulfilling? Something I felt more passion for? Why try and exit the work arena completely?

Because I’ve never quite known what it is I’m passionate about. That’s why I ended up doing a degree in Physics – I didn’t know what else to do. I fell into the job as a technical writer, as it’s the first job I applied for. I bounced about in IT as did fairly well as I was pretty good at it. Did I enjoy it? Yes, sometimes, but less and less as I climbed the corporate ladder.

Put simply – I had no idea what I’m passionate about. I still don’t.

What About Contracting?

In my line of business (or ex-line should I say), it’s fairly popular to use freelancers. When I was an employee, running a team of engineers, I’d often find myself being asked to loan some of them to one project or another. We had to get someone to take their place for a few months. Contractors could be brought in quickly, and let go of easily once the need for them was done.

When we came back from both stints of travel, I’ve gone back to work twice, both times as a contractor. I’ve found this suits me better, perhaps because it loosens the relationship between me and the company. There are no performance reviews for one thing (widely felt to be a bad joke, with everyone always graded as ‘average’). As a contractor, either I deliver and I get a contract extension, or I don’t I’m let go. So far, I’ve had extensions and I much prefer this way of getting real feedback on my usefulness.

Contracting has inherent risk and reward, but has generated a lot of money for us, turbo-boosting our financial freedom plans. It’s a sticking plaster, I suspect, when it comes to finding something to tick more than one of the above boxes. It’s mercenary stuff. I go, do the job, keep my mouth firmly closed, and leave when it’s finished. It creates money, not a warm sense of belonging.

Why Return to Work?

These are the reasons swimming around in my head:

  1. To fit in more. I don’t work, while everyone in my peer group still does. I feel like a misfit while we’re here in the UK.
  2. To keep my brain active. Even after a few months of not working, I find my mind easing off – in fact the brakes have slammed on. Remembering names and words is sometimes a struggle. The ability to logically think through an argument is drifting. This isn’t good, but I suspect subconcious fear is exaggerating this effect.
  3. To engage with people. No matter how superficial the human contact can be at work, it’s still human contact. Being a ‘stare at my shoes’ IT introverted nerd, getting out talking to new people is a challenge. Without work as a framework I find it almost impossible.
  4. Because we might not have enough. Although Ju’s giant spreadsheet tells us our finances are very healthy, it still bothers me that our funds might not survive occasional hurricanes in the coming decades. Additional income would alleviate this risk.
  5. For self-respect. While we’re away travelling I have no issue with this. But when we’re stationary in the UK, society expects someone my age to be working. I expect myself to be working, weird as it might sound. I feel judged even if in fact people aren’t judging me, and my self-respect slips as a result.
  6. To fill the time. There’s a LOT OF TIME to fill when you’re not working, not commuting and have no kids to look after. Yes, there are a gazillion things to do – read, exercise, write blog posts, help friends and family, eat out, learn languages, cook, you name it. But (a) there still a LOT OF TIME to fill even after you’ve done all of ’em and (b) it takes courage and discipline to do some of these things consistently when no-one is watching. I have limited quantities of both.

What Kind of Work?

So, what kind of work would I do? My fall-back position is to seek out more corporate IT contract work. That’s a bit of a cop-out, and I know I should really be aiming higher.

I’ve had a few suggestions about going into charity work, but for whatever reason I’m not yet finding myself drawn towards this – maybe it’s something I’ll look at later in life.

We’ve also looked at workaway type schemes, where we could contribute our skills to a project abroad in return for somewhere to stay in our motorhome. This latter option doesn’t generate any money, but would help us save our income and would hopefully give us a sense of contributing something useful, ticking many of the boxes above.

Will Anyone Employ Me?

There is something of an arrogance about all of this, I accept. I’ve dropped out. Why should the working world let me back in?

In our first two years on the road I was convinced it would be a huge issue trying to get back into the UK workforce. Within three weeks of settling in, I had a contract. A few weeks later, Ju had a job too. Why? Who knows – probably a combination of things: contacts, in-demand skills, industry knowledge, flexibility, drive (we were/maybe still are seriously driven individuals), reputation, decades of experience and training?

Yes, I think someone would employ me. I deliberately built up non-technical skills over the years, which would age out more slowly – writing, team leading, project management, consulting. These will, of course, still rust, and the longer I’m ‘out’, the more I’d need to work at getting back ‘in’.

I might be better suited to setting up something of my own, some small business I can dedicate my time and efforts to? Again I’ve thought about this long and hard, but have never worked out quite what I’d do. I guess I’d just need to pick something and give it a go.

So, What’s Next?

We’ve already a plan for the next few months, including three months of travelling, so the question about whether to go back to work full time will remain hypothetical, until at least the summer. I’ll continue to think about it, of course, to try and nail down exactly what steps to take come August.

Cheers, Jason

5 thoughts on “I’m financially free in my mid-40s, but I’m missing work, why?”

    • Mr DMarch 11, 2018 at 9:31 amPermalink

      Very insightful Jay, your 6 points are exactly the reason why I don’t pack in work and try and live off less. Instead, I packed my studies in for a while as trying to manage work (thank you Brexit), family (one graduated, got engaged, learning to drive and one with 2 years to go before college) and the need to put my stamp on this house (rear garden studio build) were more important.
      Studio build is underway and I find that very rewarding and fulfilling. Travel can come later as people age better nowadays and I believe we can park that until we hit 60 in about 10 years.
      In your case, with your skills and the confidence picked up with various freelance projects I would look at the corporate freelance route with free living expenses to boost your income. That and possibly a 3rd property or perhaps look at existing properties and enhance for the long term. Dropping out of work for awhile and getting away is very good for the soul, the rat race is just that and I don’t I want to be part of that for much longer but I fear the brain shutting down so I need to work on a longer term plan. Something to build I think, I have vision but not so much cash !

    • SimonMarch 11, 2018 at 11:03 amPermalinkHi
      That’s interesting reading. I have been following a bit of the FI thinking from blogs (yours and Escape Artist) as an alternative way to look at planning a drawdown retirement when I hit 55. It may be a coincidence, but I am also looking at working up a proposal for my firm to find a way to engage former full time and now retired staff through ad-hoc consulting. So I guess this all suggests that ‘retirement’ is a spectrum of attitudes and engagement with ‘work’, and whatever mix suits someone will be right for them.

      I think you would probably be great at engaging people to think about FI, we had an organisation come in a few years back (pension wise?) who tried to engage people to understand the challenges of creating an income in retirement. There may be a good fit in something like that for you – helping you and enlightening others!

      Simon

    • Rob DayMarch 11, 2018 at 12:49 pmPermalinkWow – thank you for sharing this Jay – I can’t tell you how familiar this all sounds to me – the points you raise – the pressures I can feel I’m imposing on myself, the financial comfort factor – I can see a lot of parallel things going on and your article definitely struck a chord!

      We’ve just come home from 2 years in our Hymer touring Europe and more recently the past 2/3 months backpacking in SE Asia. We became FI in April 2016 and apart from the odd freelance web design project that I’ve taken on either on the road or whilst popping home to help friends or top up the FU fund, I’ve not worked since I left work… And that’s left a massive gap for me. Call it what you like – purpose, meaning, a reason to get up in the morning – after 20+ years slogging away at something that I both adored and detested, but put my all into, leaving has at times felt a lot like the roadrunner careering off the edge of a cliff – the legs kept spinning, but there was nowhere to go. But could/would I go back? I really don’t think so.

      For me – this feels like a transition, a difficult transition admittedly, but it’s one that I think I need to traverse with support and understanding from others who have been through similar processes – made the leap of faith but are still working out the ‘what next?’ steps. I’ve got so much old training and societal ‘invites’ to shed and reinterpret into something that moves me towards a life that still has meaning and purpose but I don’t believe that means having to slog away just because that’s ‘how its done’. I can’t help thinking there are smarter ways to keep my brain active and engaged and feel fulfilled without going down the traditional payroll route… – I know it works for many people, but I want to explore what alternatives are out there – even if it’s going to be quite different to the norm.

      Over the past few months I’ve been really chewing on my what my next steps might be, which has been at times uncomfortable, difficult, introspective but also insightful. Whilst I’ve loved the travel and adventure, I can feel I need some projects to get my teeth into and I’ve missed my friends and community, and its just so hard to kick things off when moving day to day. So we’re home and we’re going to start spending more time back in the UK to see what happens next. After a lot of head scratching and pontificating with my other half, I think I may have a bit of a game plan and may even have developed the early stages of a process, that I’d be fascinated to compare notes with you over IM or Skype if you think that might be of interest/use?

      Either way Jay – I’m confident it’ll work out great for you – you and Jules continue to be a huge source of inspiration to me and I’m forever grateful for your openness, and the time you put into your blogs. So thank you!

      Best wishes
      Rob

    • Ms ZiYouMarch 12, 2018 at 7:54 amPermalinkThanks for sharing, as someone who is at the opposite side of FI, hoping to be there in 3 years at the age of 40, I’m wondering if I will ever go back for work after quitting.

      For what it’s worth, it sounds like a considered choice that you have made for the right reasons, wishing you all the best with your reentry to the workforce!

  • DavidMarch 20, 2018 at 10:21 amPermalinkI think transitioning back into full time employment might be rather challenging due to your enjoyment of personal and financial freedom ( just take a look at your Dusseldorf post). At present I’m in full time employment but I question why I’m doing it on a daily basis. I achieved Financial Independence about 2 years ago. I have more bad days than good days at work and when it’s a bad day I really question why I put up with it. I have a son who turns 4 soon and he’ll be off to school in September. Perhaps at that point I’ll ask for part-time working ( which will probably get denied) so that will make the choice for me. Best of luck with your decisions – I don’t believe there is any right answer and you have lots of options due to your Financial Independence. As for running out of money – it’s a constant concern of mine too even though the spreadsheet indicates all is fine.