Should you retire early if you only have five years to live?
Every week I receive a handful of questions from Root of Good readers and I try to answer them all, even if it’s a brief response. Last week was no different. The inquiry I received from “Eric” caught my eye immediately as I scanned through my emails. Subject: “Scared”. One word, vague, non-specific. Hmmm – might be spam?
As it turns out it wasn’t spam at all. I clicked to open and read further and was intrigued by the brevity of the question with what appeared to be a clear-cut easy answer on the surface but has a lot of layers that need to be peeled back to flesh out a complete response.
Here’s what Eric wrote:
“You’ll probably think I’m crazy but I’m 48 and have incurable cancer and even though I qualify for long term benefits income protection of 6 figures a year I am scared of retiring. I’m scared I’d decline and get depressed with no purpose.”
I provided a quick response to Eric with my thoughts on the issue and I asked if I could flesh out a more detailed response and post it on my blog. He agreed and provided a bit more detail about his specific situation:
“My cancer is incurable, but not necessarily officially terminal (I think terminal definition is <1 year to live). Which leads to another issue. I don’t know if I have 2 years or 20 years left. It could well be either (although my survival duration is likely less than 10 years, statistically speaking. People who make 20 are rare). My cancer is Myeloma and is incredibly individual. The average survival is 5 years from diagnoses but some people beat the odds. I think, for my age group it’s 60% chance of 5 years survival and ~35% of 10 years.“
“Continuing work as usual is not necessarily possible (I’m currently on leave as I had high dose chemo 4 months ago which takes 6 months recovery). I’m an equities trader and I have to be in the office by 6 am and stay there for 11 hours. I’ll also be on maintenance chemo for life which will probably make me tired and not able to do those hours. So, physically and for my future health, returning to those hours is not necessarily possible. A different, part time role at the bank is a possible solution I guess. But if I only have 5 years… I probably wouldn’t work at all and spend the next few years travelling.”
“On the basis I probably only have a finite number of “healthy” years ahead (I feel OK at the moment) it would seem like a no brainer to take the benefits and stop work. But as I’ve said, I’m scared that after 30 years of a very structured routine, I’ll fall apart when I don’t have one.”
To put Eric’s situation in perspective, the average 48 year old can expect to live to roughly age 80, thereby enjoying slightly more than three decades of life. Eric, in contrast has only a one in three chance of making it 10 years. That’s about the same life expectancy as an 85 year old.
The grains of time relentlessly draining to the bottom of life’s hourglass isn’t a problem unique to Eric, but he’s at a point where he has a whole lot less sand in the top half of the hourglass compared to most of us. We all have a finite lifespan and must make plans to do all that we can while we are able to. The uniqueness in this case is that Eric faces a very compressed amount of time remaining, and the uncertainty of how many of those years will be “good” years.
As an aside, one lesson to take from Eric’s situation is to plan for the future and hope for the best, because life can be shortened for a myriad of reasons. For those healthy during early stages of adulthood, focusing on early retirement and financial independence is a great way to better the odds of enjoying several decades of good quality of life (without the need to work) before health starts to decline.
One common criticism of the early retirement mindset is “What if you work hard, save and sacrifice then you don’t get to enjoy your early retirement for very long because of death or disability?”
To me the answer is obvious – better to retire in your 30’s or 40’s (while enjoying your wealth along the way) and have a great chance of making it to your 50’s or 60’s at least. Odds are you’ll get in a good decade or two even if you find yourself in Eric’s shoes. The alternative is truly daunting – follow the traditional path of working into your 60’s or later until you keel over at your desk (but you get to really live it up every weekend and during your three weeks of vacation each year!).
Ok, back to Eric’s dilemma. He’s facing a much-contracted life span of five, maybe ten years. He’s financially set with a six figure income stream for life no matter what he does in terms of a job. Working is optional from a strictly financial perspective but Eric is afraid that without work, he would “decline and get depressed with no purpose”. What’s Eric to do?
Understand that today is the first day of the rest of your life
Eric, you will have many hundreds of days, possibly several thousand more days, but today is the first day of the rest of your life and you’ll never be able to re-live this day ever again. The time to make a choice is now.
Once you acknowledge this, ask yourself “What do I want to for the rest of my life?”. Figure out what you enjoy in life and what you want to focus on in the next year or two. Make a list on a sheet of paper if that helps organize your thoughts. Did working at your current job or in a similar role make the list of what you want to do?
Frame the work/don’t work decision in terms of the pros and cons of (a) continuing to work / maintain the status quo or (b) the major life change of quitting work. Weigh the pros and cons for each option and see which is a better choice to make your remaining years as fulfilling as possible.
If work is a key part of what you want to do and it provides meaning, then by all means take the steps that are necessary to return to work in whatever capacity you can. Retirement itself is a major life change to deal with in addition to the stresses of coping with a serious incurable illness. Consider some lesser form of quitting work completely. Can you work part time? Work in a different role that offers a more reasonable forty hour per week job? Is telecommuting or remote work an option? Since it sounds like you’re already taking a medical leave of absence during the recovery period following chemotherapy, perhaps you could extend it and turn it into a sabbatical of sorts to figure out what you want to do longer term. While taking a break from work, you can leave the door open to returning to work and push off the decision of leaving work completely.
If, after examining the work/don’t work pros and cons you determine work isn’t as necessary a part of your identity as you thought it was, then proceed with your separation from full time employment. Call it early retirement or medical leave or whatever you want (go stealth wealth?). Have a going away/retirement party if that suits you or get your closest work friends together for a smaller, more private event. Then move on to “the rest of your life”.
The first six months of retirement are usually an adjustment period where you won’t be used to having ultimate freedom and control over your daily schedule. Give it time. If having a routine helps, then take your list of activities you want to focus on and program them out on a calendar (here’s my “weekly schedule” from a few years ago, though it’s changed as my youngest is now at school during the day). Program your weekly schedule with:
- fun or meaningful activities you enjoy doing
- challenging activities (part time or freelance work in a new field, intellectual stuff like writing/coding, creative arts or crafts, volunteering, civic participation)
- and physical activities (enjoying the outdoors, swimming, biking, canoeing)
In addition to a fulfilling daily or weekly schedule, start making plans to travel the world if that also interests you. Your health won’t be with you forever, so do what you can while you can.
Eric, you are ultimately responsible for following the most fulfilling path whether that means attempting to return to work in whatever capacity you can, or whether it means calling it quits and moving on to other equally, and hopefully more fulfilling activities. For those of us that don’t plan on working forever, it’s a fork in the road we all face: finding meaning outside of our professional lives. It’s easy to avoid the question of finding meaning in life by simply filling the hours with the routine of a job; more difficult is facing the fact that today is the first day of the rest of our lives.
If this is too much to think about on your own, then don’t rule out speaking with a therapist about your health issues and those bigger life questions about fulfillment and purpose. Having an outside perspective to help frame these issues and work through them can be invaluable.
I’ll also warn you that I’m approaching this from the perspective of a 37 year old writing a blog promoting the virtues of early retirement and the joys of not working, so take everything I say with a grain of salt. I’m biased in that I never felt like the civil engineering projects I worked on professionally gave my life adequate meaning or purpose, and it’s doubtful I would have done any of it if they weren’t giving me a paycheck every month. When I was suddenly let go from my job in 2013, there was only a brief sense of sadness or loss (like 30 minutes tops 🙂 ) and I quickly realized that my termination of employment was a blessing in disguise because it made a difficult decision to leave work much easier for me.
On that note, I think I’ve said enough. Eric, I wish you wisdom in making the decision that is right for you and the strength to thrive for as long as you can on whatever path you choose whether it lasts two years or twenty.
Any advice for Eric? What would you do in his position?
Update on March 17. 2018. Eric commented on this article and said:
I’ve read every comment and want to thank you all, and Justin, for the time taken to discuss my issue.
I just found out today my income protection benefits, as mentioned in the post, have been approved. So as we stand I am going to take a plunge and retire. I do have an option to return to the bank at some capacity in the future (maybe) however.
Good for Eric!