The Rat Race
You work more hours, you make more money. Sometimes more money than you’ll ever need. Without purpose. That is the rat race.
Whether you garner an hourly wage and see a direct monetary impact from working more hours, or you’re on salary, receive bonuses for hitting certain landmarks, or improve your promotion prospects and generally ascend in your career quicker – you work more hours to make more money.
There may be a handful of workers who just can’t get enough because they genuinely love the work more than anything else in their lives. But when push comes to shove, it takes a very rare breed of worker to actively choose sitting in an office for another 10-20 hours a week versus taking that time to do something they love outside of work (when money, job security, and promotional opportunities are 100% identical either way).
It’s all about the money. And that, in itself, is the rub. Work more, earn more. When enticed like this, humans are kind of like rats at the feeder bar, except we never get full and the pellets keep coming.
We know that there is more to life than making money, lets all agree on that point. But at what point do you stop and say “enough is enough!”?
The Traditional American Career Equation
The traditional American career life-cycle equation has always looked something like this:
More work hours now (with less life balance) for more reward in the future
IS GREATER THAN
Less work hours now (with more life balance) for less reward in the future
Reward, in this equation, is whatever you want it to be: more stuff, more security, less work. In other words, you are sacrificing the present for the future. Isn’t that what the entire stereotypical American retirement is based on? Slave away for 45 years so that some day you can entirely leave the workplace behind, drive a Cadillac, golf every morning, watch your bank account swell to a level I you’ll never be able to spend, and dominate your Bingo circuit?
….. well, that sounds…..kind of, sort of….. awful.
Subscribing to this model is also a hell of a dangerous bet. The only time we are truly guaranteed our health and livelihood in this world is RIGHT NOW. There is no guarantee that we’ll be around when we reach the ‘golden’ payoff years of this model. At the same time, there is almost 100% certainty that if we do reach this end, we’ll have poorer mental and physical health than we do in the present. That free time that we worked so hard for will be less enjoyable than the free time that we could have had earlier in life. And many become so conditioned to overworking that they simply can never slow down, even when it’s painfully obvious that they could and should.
Fear – And Overcoming It
What keeps us stuck in this model? The only conclusion I can come to is FEAR. Fear that we’ll end up homeless and begging on the street. Fear that we don’t have someone to guide us along the path and hold our hand as we explore a different way. Fear that we won’t be able to support a family. Fear that others will get ahead of us financially. Fear that Social Security won’t be there to save us. Fear that the stock market will deplete our retirement savings. Fear that inflation will eat away at our savings. Etc., etc. etc.
Some of these fears might have some merit. But should they have enough power over you that they force you to submit and completely give up your present life for more money?
How can you overcome these fears? It’s not easy and I struggle with this myself, but I think the answer looks something like this:
- Realize and accept that the traditional career life-cycle is only a construct, and it might not be the best one for you.
- Figure out how much money you actually need to maintain a base quality of life. Countless studies have shown that once you achieve the basics of food, water, shelter, clothing, health, a little security, and experiences, money can do little advance your happiness levels. You might find that what you need to maintain the basics is FAR less than what you’ve been earning at 20 or 30 hours, let alone 60 or 70. It’s OK to save towards the future, but saving money for needs and hoarding money without purpose are two completely separate things.
- Earn what you need. If you choose to work more hours when you’ve already earned beyond what you need to maintain that base quality of life, understand that you are actively choosing to trade your guaranteed present for an uncertain future. If you’re OK with that trade and absolutely love your work more than anything, then keep working. If you’re not OK with that trade, it’s time to draw the line and simply stop working the additional hours. If you find that there is no way you can continue in your present job at the reduced hours, you may have to make some tough decisions.
Execution is always the hardest part.
Knowing when to Step Away from Work Discussion:
- How have you drawn the line in the sand to know when to stop working?
- Are you OK with sacrificing the present for the future (the traditional American retirement)?
I think there should be a balance between enjoying the now as well as preparing for the future. I get your point about why sacrifice now while you have your youth and health and can enjoy life greater than when you’re older argument.
That being said, I am ok sacrificing the present for the future, as I go against the norm and know the destination is more enjoyable than the path. I’ll rough it out in the present to make for a better future, and understand their needs to be some sacrifice.
I recently took a second part-time job to make more income and savings towards goals I have set.
Excellent article. I’ve always hated the rat race, and have taken on the mentality of letting life take me where it will. More work/more money doesn’t equal happiness. Breaking the mold makes happiness for me :)
I would add a fourth answer: “Be your own yardstick – don’t measure yourself by others”.
“Normal” is broke, in debt and living beyond your means. Refuse to be normal. Too many people allow themselves to be manipulated by marketing and circumstances, or have forgotten how to tell themselves “no”.
If the recent economic woes teach us one thing it is that tomorrow is not guaranteed and you reap what you sow. But that’s two things… I really should learn to count :)
I definitely agree that one should not compare themselves to others. Almost everyone has a nicer car than me, but I don’t care, as my car is good enough to get me from point A to point B. And the fact that it’s not the latest & greatest means it has its own built-in theft deterrent.
@ Wizard and Ron – definitely agree with you on the ‘not measuring yourself to others point’. I think that really is key to living below your means.
I’m all for drawing the line in the sand – $2 million is my personal finance goal! Good post.
Such a great post. It’s very hard to tell when to draw the line. I think it’s best to just have a well rounded life, and not focus on money only. But that can be quite difficult sometimes.
The rat race can really do a number on peoples personal lives which is why it is important to keep things fresh. I think if someone wants to exit the race and make their own money they should look at what they are good at and see if at all possible they can turn it into steady income.