How to Make Work Sustainable

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MAN, people really hate working.

Coming out of the pandemic and two years of on-again-off-again government-imposed lockdowns, you would think that people would be chomping at the bit to go back to work as the economy re-opens and eternally grateful for whatever job they’re fortunate enough to have.

Nope.

Especially in the industries that were heavily affected by COVID like travel, health care, and restaurant work, workers are being asked to do more, with less pay, and with zero concern for their safety and well-being.

All this has fuelled what the media has dubbed the Great Resignation, with record numbers of workers quitting their jobs. They’re not doing it because they have so much money they don’t have to work again, they’re doing it because they’re so fed up with a system that seems hell-bent on extracting as much productivity they can for their corporate masters while paying them as little as legally possible.

Work-Life Balance is Under Attack

We have recently started travelling again (Yay!) and one of the first things we noticed back in Europe is that people here don’t centre their lives around work like we do back home. Restaurants in Portugal typically close after 2 PM, only to reopen again at 7 PM. France has 3 times the number of mandatory paid vacation days as the US. Even famously hard-working Germany completely shuts down on Sundays.

In Europe, work-life balance is something that governments actually try to build into their society. Some are more successful than others, of course, but they’re at least trying. In the US, anyone advocating for worker’s rights is roundly denounced as a socialist, communist, or the literal anti-Christ.

Time and time again, when the US (and the UK, and to a certain extent even Canada) needs to choose to between the rights of workers versus the owners, the owners consistently win. That’s how you get situations where billionaires blast themselves into space on a penis-shaped rocket while their workers don’t even get to take bathroom breaks without being penalized.

If you ever wanted to get an idea of how frustrated people are, check out the Subreddit r/Antiwork. It’s basically an entire subreddit dedicated to people who are just sick of the entire system and want to check out completely.

There are some societal-level solutions to this. Unions allow workers to organize and fight back against exploitive employers. Companies can be forced via laws and regulations to give their workers basic rights like sick days, caps on maximum hours worked, or a livable wage.

However, these solutions require a political solution, and odds are not great of that happening. If anything, the US government has actively opposed anything that could make life easier for workers for decades, instead siding with those same billionaire rocket-riders that created the situation in the first place. If you’re waiting for the government to ride to your rescue, you could be waiting a very, very, very long time.

FIRE Shifts Power Back to the Worker

The Financial Independence movement has been depicted as many things by the mainstream media. Sometimes we’re depicted as tightwads who hate spending money. Sometimes we’re depicted as lazy, entitled millennials who don’t want to work. Occasionally we’re depicted as savvy investment gurus that have figured a way to hack the system.

However, I think it’s something bigger than that. I think the FIRE movement is a way for workers everywhere to seize back some of the power that has been lost to corporations over the past few decades. You can have all the campus protests, union drives, and political rallies you want, but if it doesn’t result in concrete action that improves conditions for workers, none of it means anything.

The FIRE movement actually offers a way for people to improve their lives. Money is power, so the more money you have, the more power you have to push back against an unreasonable boss or a greedy corporate bean counter. By teaching people to spend their money not on stuff (or houses), but on investments that provide a passive income, we’re teaching people how to no longer depend on their jobs. And that means that even if they decide not to retire fully like us, they will have the power to demand better working conditions.

We saw this first hand when we left in 2015. The same bosses that told us things like unpaid leave, working from home, or going to part-time were “impossible” all of a sudden changed their tune when they realized that we didn’t need them anymore and had one foot out the door. Your maximum negotiating power happens the moment you cross over your FI number.

And the cool thing about this is that this effect isn’t an all-or-nothing thing. Your power increases as you work towards Financial Independence, so whether you’re 10%, 25%, or 50% of your way to your FI target, your ability to stand up to your boss increases with it.

The flip side of that, of course, is if you’re deep in debt with a giant mortgage that forces you to keep working or you’ll lose your house, you have zero negotiating power and your boss knows it. That’s why when we were working, our managers kept pestering us about when we were going to settle down and buy a place. They knew that once we signed the dotted line on a mortgage, they could treat us like shit and we’d have no choice but to take it.

Finding Sustainable Work

The ironic thing is that just because we left our jobs hasn’t meant that we stopped working. I continued coding for two years at a non-profit called We Need Diverse Books, we created this blog, and we wrote a best-selling book!

And we’re far from alone. Far from being “lazy,” most people who achieve FIRE end up going on and doing great things. Mr. Money Mustache opened up a co-working space in Colorado, Brandon “the Mad Fientist” Ganch became a musician and has a very cool album out on Spotify, and J.L. “The GodFather” Collins is back to running Chautauquas.

In short, people want to work. There’s an innate desire to produce and create that we all share as human beings. But what we don’t want is to be chained to a desk and forced to work so that someone else can blast off into space on a penis-rocket for no reason.

What we actually want is a way to sustainably work. To be able to balance work with our health, time spent with our loved ones, and the ability to explore this big beautiful world that we all live in.

Sustainable Work is a pretty rare thing to find as an employee. Not just because employers are financially incentivized to grind you to dust for their bottom line, but also because everyone’s level of Sustainable Work is different.

Some people (like FIRECracker) need to go hard on a certain project for months at a time. At certain points, we were actually working longer hours writing and promoting our book than when we were working at our old jobs! I, on the other hand, prefer to do work in shorter 2-3 hour chunks spread out over a longer period of time.

In short, everyone’s Sustainable Work rhythm is individual. Maybe some of you like working 60 hour weeks at a desk (psychos!), but for most people, that will quickly learn to burn-out, not to mention health issues. And unfortunately, companies have not figured out a way to let everyone work at their own pace.

So the only logical way to figure out your own personal balance point of Sustainable Work is to become Financially Independent, thereby removing your dependence on the work-until-you-drop economy, and create your own “job”.

You choose what you do, when you do it, and who you do it with.

You might even surprise yourself with what ends up clicking for you.

For me, I always thought my happy place would be in software, coding up the next great app and building a tech startup from the ground up. Turns out, my happy place is travelling the world and doing creative writing projects with my beautiful and super-smart wife. I recently told my sister that technically, I’m a professional artist now, and she laughed so hard she fell down.

Conclusion

The point is, Sustainable Work isn’t a mythical city on a hill that exists only in storybooks and fairy tales. It does exist, but what that looks like is different for each person. That’s why there’s no one-size-fits all solution. But in order to find it, you have to free yourself from the shackles of your existing life.

As someone who’s found theirs, I have to tell you that it’s pretty fricking awesome. Now lets figure out how to find yours too.

What do you think your Sustainable Work looks like? Let’s hear it in the comments below!


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53 thoughts on “How to Make Work Sustainable”

  1. “But what we don’t want is to be chained to a desk and forced to work so that someone else can blast off into space on a penis-rocket for no reason.”
    BWA HA HA HA HA HA HAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!! Every time I read “penis-rocket”, I laugh like The Theological Place of Eternal Punishment.

    May I please have your permission to freely use this term when it’s age-appropriate, like at university faculty meetings? Maybe: “Look, Madame Chair, I don’t want to be chained to a podium and forced to teach while you and the University President blast off to space on a penis-rocket for no reason!’

    And greetings from Taipei, Taiwan!

    Dan V

  2. I’ve made it widely known in my company that I will not be working more than 45 hours a week. Ever. This isn’t a major shift as I’ve been quietly refusing to work extra hours for a few years. But I’ve been pretty vocal about it this year and encouraged my coworkers to join me.

  3. My idea of sustainable work: waking up to sunshine, teaching a few hours a day online, drop by my local Starbucks which has a library in it to read my favorite business magazines, have brunch with a friend after that, do some grocery shopping and talk with my husband about our next trip around Japan–just like today! I felt so happy even though it was just an ordinary day just because I get to control my time myself.

  4. My sustainable work would be done off hours of when my kids and wife are awake or available. I want to spend the best times of my day with them. I don’t want to trudge through the 6am to 3 pm work life and missing mornings with my kids. I want to be there when they open their eyes everyday!

    Once they’re asleep or busy with activities without me, I will work on my custom woodcrafting business making cutting boards and charcuterie boards and selling online. This is my passion project and will help bring in a bit of income now to help me get to FI, and also will help once I am FI.

  5. Hmmm… my only comment is how can France have three times more mandatory paid vacation days then zero? 3 x 0 = 0. It’s even worse then you thought, its zilch!

      1. Unfortunately “public” holidays aren’t mandatory days off and employers are definitely not required to pay you even if you have the day off.

        Employers are able to decide everything in the private sector, nothing is government mandated. Typical higher level office jobs will give you a paid day for Christmas, but definitely not the masses.

        Another “fun” fact is that the US has no mandatory paid maternity leave. Only 8 states out of 50 have a paid program. We are the only developed country without this, and on top of it we have one of the worst maternal death rates! So, no… we don’t value “family” work life balance here at all.

  6. Great post! 🙂 It’ll be interesting to see where I fall in to the sustainable work model. I hope to pursue more creative projects.

      1. Yes! I love writing and am also interested in putting together some videos about my travels once I retire. Hopefully that’ll be January of next year. 🙂

  7. We are in the UAE again this year and they just went to a 4.5 day work week and 4 days in Sharjah which is great and it’s all about family time. They also have rules about length of time work can go on and even school timings. But of course this is primarily for White collar jobs. I worry with all of this rebalancing (so necessary) how much it will continue to separate those in the Global South versus North.
    No answers but it just saddens me to keep seeing the chasms increasing and the poorest getting even poorer.

  8. Financial independence is great and the power it gives us amazing. I retired in 2020 but recently restarted some work. An employer wouldn’t leave me alone so I finally said yes. I was so hesitant to go back that they offered anything I wanted. So I said work from home on a casual hourly basis. My hourly rate is more than 2x what I was making at my final job and totally flexible. It’s amazing what you can get if you keep saying no.

    Since restarting, I can confirm that I’d rather stare at a wall than peck away at a laptop lol. But I’ll stick with this bit of work for now for some fun money.

  9. “ in Europe is that people here don’t centre their lives around work “

    Vast majority of Europeans don’t have the means of FIRE or have heard of FI or even invest in stocks personally. Most are employees and demand benefits, pensions, limit work hours , long holidays with resultant high taxes and fees. There is a long history of rent control with many in Germany renting the same place for decades but home ownership and the enterprise thinking of buying and selling homes is rare. So you’re right, the culture in Europe superficially appears to be envious but in reality with State control, you would rarely be able to become FIRE unless you inherited wealth

    1. Who cares if you have a comfortable life and don’t have to worry about losing your health care if you lose your job? I seriously think 70% of FIRE people wouldn’t be as interested in quitting if they could stop stressing about that.

    2. Yes, but on the other hand, Europe’s need for FIRE would be far less because you don’t have the crazy demands of unbridled capitalism grinding you into dust.

  10. It’s so true about the house ! A few years before I FIRE’d, the company I worked for got bought out and I received a payout for some company stock. It was enough for a down payment on a decent house. My manager kept pestering me about what my plans for the money were, suggesting that I should buy a house closer to work (I was renting a room in a house at the time), maybe get a new car to replace my 100K mile beater, or similar stupid ideas. I was no fool.. I took the money, added to my FIRE hoard, and never looked back !!

    Regarding worker empowerment, one of the problems in the US is that the vast vast vast majority of people have dismal financial knowledge/skills or discipline. Everyone is always in maximum consumption mode, constantly buying crap and falling further behind. Within my social circle, I’m the only person who “gets it” regarding FIRE. Everyone else is working their miserable jobs (which they somehow convince themselves that they like), with the hope of retiring by their late 60’s.

    If a person could even manage to put away a few months living expenses (outside of their retirement accounts), that alone would go along way towards worker empowerment. A person with a couple $10K or so sitting on the sideline has the necessary runway to say “F*ck You” to their boss.

  11. At the outset, I’d like to point out that I am not a minimum-wage worker and thus I have managed to reached a FIRE state. In this period of the Great Resignation, let’s not forget the plight of the minimum wage workers. With all due respect to Fire Cracker, lets not forget that the minimum-wage workers have no option other than to toil day-in and day-out while getting paid peanuts and are exploited by their employers. They don’t have many options to quit and switch to alternative sustainable jobs with higher wages and thus avoid being squeezed by their employers. These people are in a life-long struggle of survival. On paper, they can save and invest. Either there isn’t much left to invest or there is nothing left to invest after meeting their basic needs. Penis-shaped rockets reminded me of Kim Jong Un (that cute oversized hippo). He excels in firing penis-shaped missiles into the ocean (let alone space), while his ‘servants’ starve and die.

    1. You’re right, index funds can’t save minimum wage workers on their own but FIRE is more than just a cheerleader for index funds. People at the beginning of their career ladder need to focus on upgrading their skills to increase their earnings before worrying about Backdoor Roth IRA strategies, which is why we write about that too.

      Also, I’ve never heard of Kim Jong Un described as “cute” before. I’m sure he’d be flattered.

      1. Yeah right…minimum wage workers need to focus on building a career..LOL..you mean like their college-educated compatriots in the tech industry do??

    2. I disagree with you. Working a minimum wage job is a choice. It. Is. Always. A. Choice.

      Many people want to play victim as to their choices in life. That is still a choice.

      I chose not to do that. That’s why success surrounds me and why I attract money to me like flies on shit.

  12. I think your Canadian government “un FIREd” you today when they removed your right to talk and have a bank account. Back to work for you!!!

  13. I do carpentry and I like going hard. However, whenever winter rolls around my body starts to shut down and I become miserable. I think it’s an evolutionary thing where I’m just wired to work in line with the seasons, with winter being the chill/hibernation phase. This winter I’ve had to take 3 weeks off to just lie in bed with a headache and body aches (and now an ear ache–don’t know if that’s related, but if so that’s scary). So this summer I am going to request a leave of absence for the upcoming winter. If they say yes, I’ll go down to Mexico and chill for 2 or 3 months. If it works out well I’ll probably do the same thing every winter. It will slow down my FIRE date by a lot, but it would be worth it if it means I can stay healthy physically and psychologically. Who knows, I may not even care much about FIRE anymore if I can find that balance. As you said, people like work–just not when it crushes them.

    1. Highly endorse your idea. I’ve realized over the pandemic that I can’t deal with Canadian winters anymore.

      Take care of your health first. Everything else is secondary.

  14. It is baked in our minds that we have to struggle in our jobs in order to succeed. Take on more and more difficult projects, tighter and tighter deadlines, so that maybe your get the salary raise that you deserve. Sustainable work is not normal somehow, we are used to regular crushing work. If it is not crushing, it is not work.

    1. It didn’t always used to be like this. My parents didn’t have to put up with this endless escalator of stress.

      Or maybe it’s been so long that they’ve forgotten about it.

  15. I like working around my home. Volunteer work. I love gardening, cooking, home improvement projects. The work we do doesn’t result in making money. Even though we fired years ago, and haven’t earned income, we still feel we have a great work life balance. Just don’t get paid for it.

    1. Hey, that’s great! I’ve yet to meet an early retiree that doesn’t end up doing at least some part-time meaningful work. We all have to feel like we’re contributing somehow, don’t we?

      1. Absolutely. Volunteering in the community definitely gives me that feeling. The point is you can still “work”once you fire, it can be meaningful work that contributes to your family or community, but it doesn’t have to result in a pay check.

  16. The idea that FIRE isn’t an all or nothing concept is very important, I think. Having so much money that working is entirely optional is the ultimate, but even having the means to take a month or six off gives considerable power. As mentioned, it lets you say no to a boss, knowing that you can withstand losing a job. It lets you pursue a goal or regroup after a setback (such as being laid off during the pandemic, for example). If all employees operated this way, it would be much harder for employers to create the culture that we see today. As someone else has already said, a big part of our ills in North America is workers’ insistence on spending money they don’t have on stuff they don’t need.

    The company I work for – still being affected by the pandemic, even if recovery seems to be on the horizon – just unexpectedly offered an optional unpaid two month leave. I’m happy I was able to jump on the opportunity in order to go full-time on some training that I want to get done for a possible career change. If my taking a leave simultaneously keeps a coworker from getting laid off, then it’s a win-win for everyone.

    FIRE is an excellent goal, but if you do work you don’t hate and have a nice work-life balance, it may not be necessary to go all in. I’m nowhere near reaching full FIRE, and may never be before I reach normal retirement age, but having a little cash set aside (invested so it makes passive income – thanks for the investment workshops!) and living a little below my means can still give a very satisfying life. After all, FIRE or no, we all have to do something. Why not let it be something you’ll get paid for if you enjoy it?

  17. “And the cool thing about this is that this effect isn’t an all-or-nothing thing. Your power increases as you work towards Financial Independence, so whether you’re 10%, 25%, or 50% of your way to your FI target, your ability to stand up to your boss increases with it.”

    Your FU money before having FI money mentioned above enables you to either find a sustainable job or make your current one sustainable. For example, my employer agreed to give me 6 weeks of vacation on top of the 2 weeks of official holidays. 2 months off in a year is great for me. I also get the flexibility of hours and working from home as needed.

    Other ideas may be cutting hours to 80% like Angela at Tread Lightly, Retire Early. And the Fioneers’ slow FI series has a lot of other examples.

  18. Your words are inspiring. I recently learned about the FIRE movement, what from the outside looks like a desire to work less, to extort from society and the economy, is actually a conscious way of existence. I work 10-12 hours a day, and I understand that life passes by, I do not do really important things. Thanks for the advices and good luck everyone!

  19. In my opinion, until we reach the day when an employee can literally walk into their boss’s office, piss on his leg, and tell him in no uncertain terms that he’s gonna f*** his wife, and have the reaction of the boss be an immediate 25% pay raise and an apology, then the workers don’t have enough power.

    Sincerely,
    ARB—Angry Retail Banker

  20. I don’t know if this would fall under making work sustainable, but just over five years ago I left full-time work with the support of my husband (who truly does enjoy the work he does and has worked at the same company for over 30 years). I wanted work that I could do on my own terms, and ended up falling into the event/convention industry. I also reactivated my substitute teaching status five years ago and obtained my unarmed security license last year.

    The work is definitely feast or famine but I truly enjoy what I do and learn so much still from every event I work. I have met interesting attendees from all over the world, have been able to work in different cities and for the first time in my life I was promoted to become a supervisor. The hours can be difficult, as well as the hunting for future work when you aren’t working but the advantages are everything is completely flexible and allows me to spend time with my kids and take off time whenever I need to do so. I know a lot of retired people who still work these conventions, security or substituting so it’s something I can continue to do in the future as well.

  21. This really hits home for me. I live in a HCOL city and am probably halfway to FI on a $ basis. If I moved to LCOL I’m there already. MCOL, I’m pretty close. Sometimes I watch the stock market and stress about not being there yet. I also get stressed out at work despite continual promotions and raises. It’s really hard to remember that I don’t need to do this. I could move out of this city and literally do anything else. It’s hard though when you don’t currently live there and have a clear idea of the true FI number I’d need because I don’t fully know what expenses are in those other places.

    Either way, it’s good to remember that I don’t have to do this if I don’t want to. So don’t let it stress me out and don’t feel like I need to keep this job.

  22. My sustainable work for the last 14 years has been managing our portfolio. Ok, “managing” is a bit too strong. I guess what I really do is monitor it. I just sit there and watch the ups and downs, but do nothing about it. It’s exhausting. 8^)

  23. Taking back my power is absolutely one of the reasons I want to FIRE. I am opting out of the power struggle. I have enough savings that I’ve already opted out of being worried about losing my job, which lowers my stress levels. I’m more likely than my teammates to stand up to the boss, and I successfully pushed her to end her long string of hiring only young white men. We got significantly more diversity on the team now.

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