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The Long Plot to Escape From Work

In the face of a nonexistent safety net and bleak future prospects, the F.I.R.E movement and other individualized paths to financial mastery offer a specific brand of fantasy.

Tommy, who retired at 51, built savings using a combination of “automatic payroll deductions, compounding interest, reinvested dividends, stock growth, consistent dollar-cost averaging,” and a lifestyle of “purposeful frugality.” Justin, who retired at 33, maxed out his 401(k) contribution right after college—even though it made his paycheck seem “puny”—and focused on “smart investments” that allowed him to build wealth while avoiding hidden fees. Grant retired at 30 after accumulating $1.25 million in savings over the course of five years. If you want to do the same, he recommends you “track everything” and “make more money.” 

I am obsessed with these men or, I should say, this genre of person. A lot of them seem to be white and named Chris. They are all “self-made millionaires” with stories delivered through blog posts, podcasts, and memoirs in the same approachable parlance, as if you were having beers with an especially wise friend. They populate a cottage industry of advice and self-help packaged together as the F.I.R.E movement: financial independence, retire early. F.I.R.E is a product of the last few decades—1992’s Your Money or Your Life is often cited as a foundational text—but the odds-defying financial striver is a more timeless American figure, finding different expressions from the prosperity gospel to the current wave of TikTok entrepreneurialism. 

The stories can vary. There’s “lean” F.I.R.E and “fat” F.I.R.E depending on your savings nut and spending preferences. There are versions of early retirement that still seem to involve a lot of work and others that gloss over passive income streams and inherited wealth. There are nice-guy versions about dads in North Carolina and tech-bro versions that I am guessing involve a lot of ketamine, but they tend to share an arc: the hero’s journey out of toil that, with the right kind of self-discipline and smart choices—avoiding takeout and buying a small house instead of a big house are common tropes—can be replicated. 

Most families in the United States have little to no retirement savings, with millions of older workers facing the financial impossibility of retirement alongside the very real risk of being forced out of their jobs early. Private sector pensions have cratered over the last two decades, and the public pension, long a firewall against poverty in old age, has become a nearly obsessive target of rightwing budgeting. This kind of inequality is also an ouroboros, with wealth stratification reproducing itself generationally: Many of the asset-poor millennials of today will inherit the wealth of their Boomer parents currently coasting into an easy retirement; others won’t, their futures calcifying along the same precarious lines as in their twenties and thirties. In the face of such a dire predicament, the F.I.R.E movement and similarly individualized stories of financial mastery offer a specific brand of fantasy: Other people may not have what it takes, but play it smart and you can escape work, too.

The idea that work sucks and ease must be gamed out of an unyielding system is a profoundly American one. The statistics bearing this out are by now pretty boring to recite: We work considerably less than we did a century ago but considerably more than similarly wealthy nations. Real wages are stagnant. We have no federally guaranteed paid time off, either for leisure, caregiving, or the days when you’re down with the flu or just don’t feel like showing up. In the absence of a single-payer system, access to health care is largely tied to our jobs, with nearly half of the population relying on an employer-sponsored plan to see a doctor. Making a low wage as a woman or a person of color, or working under the table because of your immigration status, engenders even greater uncertainty. The pandemic is steroids for all of it. 

The early retirement aspirant recognizes all of this, at least on some level. Personal stories of the sort that fuel the genre often include an epiphany in a life with too little free time or too much debt, distracted from the things that matter. 

Success stories—after a person reaches their financial goal or has spent some time on the other side of it—offer the promise of sustainable happiness beyond the rat race. In his first blog post back in 2011, Mr. Money Moustache—a former software engineer named Peter Adeney who retired at 30—preached a “radical new way to think about and enjoy money that will get you off of your current debt-powered treadmill.” A better life was possible:

You will suddenly be able to fly freely through the world, free from having to work for a living, able to start living life as you choose, doing exotic things like spending time raising your young children, taking a 3-week vacation each month, or just enjoying understated shows of leisure like sweeping your driveway in pajamas at 11am on a sunny Thursday morning.

I find this paragraph almost hypnotic. I dabble in F.I.R.E. reading out of something like morbid curiosity, but the sentiment of so many of these origin stories is the same kind of thing you’ll find in left organizing spaces and literature. It’s an articulation of what people deserve, reflected in a funhouse mirror. 

In The Post-Work Manifesto, Stanley Aronowitz, Dawn Esposito, William DiFazio, and Margaret Yard also imagined days loosed from the obligations of endless work through a reduction in work hours. A better life was again possible, one in which we had more time to “develop our capacities or simply do what most pleases us.”  

This was, as the authors wrote, itself a riff on the nineteenth-century demand of “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.” That too was just one expression of a long political insistence against work and for time to do arbitrary and unproductive stuff that is only your business. 

These visions of collective liberation and radical democracy are a long way from Mr. Money Mustache (the writers of The Post-Work Manifesto paired their call for greater leisure with a demand for, among other things, a guaranteed universal income), but the diagnosis occasionally overlaps: a work-obsessed culture that disconnects us from ourselves and our communities.  

The F.I.R.E movement is generally mercenary by nature, though. (“Where’s the budget for taking care of your mother-in-law?” Kiersten Saunders, a F.I.R.E believer who is also critical of the movement’s myopia around race, gender, and care, told The New York Times last year.) There’s not really a community that exists outside the adherents who share tips, much less a structural analysis of exploitation and the ways in which leisure and self-determination are systematically denied to so many. (Lots of people spend very little and stay poor. F.I.R.E doesn’t much account for how what gets branded as laudatory frugality in their circles is often just daily life for millions of broke people with little “financial independence” to show for it.) With F.I.R.E or whatever version of the American Dream that comes into focus in a given year, it’s a path walked alone, paved with bootstrapping and good choices. (Highly successful people “bank their raises,” “focus on increasing their earnings,” and “value happiness.”)    

Still, I can’t help but read all of this shit on an almost weekly basis. I seek it out. My inbox is filled with alerts about people in their twenties who live in storage containers and make $175,000 a year in passive income monetizing YouTube videos about their tiny house or blog posts like “Seven of the Smartest Pieces of Advice About Saving Money From Early Retirees.” The popularity of the genre speaks to something like a fractured national desire, a bizarro version of polling that demonstrates widespread support for universal programs like Medicare for All or tuition-free college that spans conflicting ideological types. We want to consume ideas of ease and abundance even, or maybe especially, as those things seem increasingly impossible to wider swaths of the country. 

Work can be—often is—a miserable, incoherent thing that also happens to structure much of the rest of our lives: most of the hours in our day; how and where we live; our capacity to house, feed, and care for ourselves and others; our self-worth and social experiences. Finding our way out of this cycle for good isn’t something you can actually do alone—despite a sea of literature about life hacks and saving to spending ratios—though it’s seductive to believe otherwise. 

As a kid, I liked playing lotto. My family generally slipped scratchers into birthday cards, and whenever I had a little bit of money of my own—from babysitting or one particularly flush year after I made my confirmation—I would ask my parents to buy me a couple. My ambitions in this pursuit were fairly modest. Megamillions and similarly world-altering jackpots were for other people. My game of choice was $1,000 a Week for Life, a $2 ticket with a prize I felt was just right: a lump sum that would come in around $1 million or, my preference at the time, a weekly payment that amounted to a post-tax base income of $32,000 a year, every year, until I died. 

The idea wasn’t to buy a mansion so much as lock in a little security and hedge against future drudgery. I was young, but my understanding of work had already started to develop through the lens of my mother’s long hours and watching enough television to know that bosses were generally tyrants. Lotto seemed low risk but high reward, an investment in possibility. (That sentiment is baked in: The New York Lottery’s motto is literally “Hey, you never know.”)

I don’t play lotto anymore, but I think my adult fixation on the F.I.R.E movement is related. I am invested in the project of collective liberation and I try to live those politics, but I can’t help but fantasize about buying back more of my time a little faster. Jumping off the treadmill was, after all, part of the authors of The Post-Work Manifesto’s vision and a longer radical tradition connecting free time to revolutionary work. It wasn’t a separate pursuit from greater democracy and the end of capitalism; it creates their conditions—“the new power of ordinary people to participate daily in politics and community affairs.” And to fuck around. Maybe even retire at 30 if you want.