Ennui: Early retirees share hard lessons

By Phan Duong   March 29, 2022 | 09:17 pm PT
Nguyen Hung Tu returned to work exactly one year and one month after retiring at the age of 38 despite having enough money to last his family for years.

The 42-year-old IT engineer living in HCMC's District 3 explains why he decided to do so in October 2019: "I could not stand living a meaningless life any longer. I felt as if I had been rejected by society".

He says he first became aware of FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early), a trend that has emerged around the world, in 2015.

He realized he had the financial wherewithal to retire early because IT is a high-paying industry in Vietnam, especially for someone like him with years of experience.

He used to work for a foreign company, run his own software outsourcing business and invest in assets like stocks and cryptocurrencies.

"I no longer needed to earn more money and had become financially independent by the age of 38".

He decided to retire in September 2018, his wife continued to work, his two children's fees at an international school had been paid for until grade 12, and so he had no reason whatsoever to be concerned.

The income from his savings alone was more than double the household expenses.

He really enjoyed the early days of his retirement, not having to worry about running to the office every morning and meeting deadlines.

Every month the family took a vacation. He also resumed many hobbies he was previously unable to pursue due to his hectic schedule, like learning the piano, painting and reading novels. He even used his spare time to create a website where people could learn English by reading popular books.

However, after a mere two months he began to miss his previous busy life and colleagues.

To pass time he would sit in a coffee shop near his children's school from the time he dropped them off until he picked them up, and also agreed to work on some projects like creating a website to teach IT processes.

However, all this did not satisfy the IT engineer in him, and he began to itch to rejoin work.

Customers are seen at a coffee shop in Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City, November 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

Customers are seen at a coffee shop in Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City, November 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

At the coffee shop, he would meet young people who were interested in learning how to make money by increasing online interaction for Facebook posts. He wanted to teach them how to do it but refrained since he was afraid they might think he was trying to scam them.

"I began to apply for jobs again because I realized I was no different from other young people without a clear goal in life. I did not want to waste my time sitting in fancy coffee shops and chatting with friends or playing games".

Hung Tu's story is not uncommon, especially among those who plan to retire early. The topic of early retirement has been making news recently, appearing in newspapers and TV chat shows.

There are discussions in online forums and people share their thoughts on whether one should retire early, what they could do during the early days of retirement and even returning to work after retiring early.

According to a survey by British market research firm YouGov of nearly 10,000 Americans on the impact of Covid-19 on retirement planning, 11 percent of respondents aged 45-54 said they plan to push back their early retirement plans.

SimplyWise, a U.S. retirement planning consultant, found that 44 percent of Americans will postpone retirement and continue to work if the market remains weak, while 18 percent will work for at least five more years.

Phan Dung Khanh, a financial expert in HCMC, says the pandemic has had a significant impact on early retirees. A segment that invests in stocks, real estate, cryptocurrencies and the like is rapidly becoming wealthy, allowing them to stop working at an early age.

However, another group of people has been severely impacted, causing them to be concerned about earning a living.

Khanh cites the example of a friend who retired many years ago thanks to income from renting out a property in the heart of HCMC for $8,000 a month. But since they had to reduce the rent to $2,000 due to the pandemic, recently they had to sell the property to start a business using the money.

Khanh also has other friends who have retired but are currently unhappy with their lives.

He refers to a man who stopped working two years ago and gets a rental income of $8,000-10,000 a month, but is depressed because he now has few opportunities for social contacts, and his day only involves picking up children from school.

"Last year he began to promote products on TikTok and YouTube, which provide him with a very good income. However, he is doing it just for fun and not for earning a lot of money".

Chi Nguyen, a doctor of education and a researcher into the early retirement trend in the U.S., says people should "find a hobby" before embarking on retirement.

She warns about ennui and disorientation that will set in when a person does not have a hobby or clear plans.

Chi, who retired after graduating, does not use her spare time to go fishing or gardening but pursues her passion for content creation.

Nguyen Thanh Tung during a trip to Japan in 2018. Photo courtesy of Tung

Nguyen Thanh Tung during a trip to Japan in 2018. Photo courtesy of Tung

After achieving financial independence, Nguyen Thanh Tung quit his job at the age of 30 and has traveled to 20 countries and become a travel blogger in the last two years.

He bought a suburban penthouse that has a small lotus pond, a large koi fish pond and a garden to grow plants. Besides, he looks around for investment opportunities.

He says: "In my opinion, the term 'early retirement' should not be used because it implies giving up everything and doing nothing. It is a transition from one job to another in which I have the freedom to choose my time and passion instead of having to seek permission from my boss".

Ken Dychtwald, an American psychologist who has written 17 books on the topic of retirement, recently gained attention for creating a concept called ‘Life's Third Age’. It is about continuing to grow, learn, meet new people, try new things, and even discover new purposes.

He says humans used to think of retirement as a short period of time after a lifetime of hard work, and the sooner one does it, the better.

However, as life expectancy rises and more people achieve financial independence early in life, the third stage of life, admittedly one of leisure, leads to boredom and disorientation.

Dychtwald believes this period should not be spent solely for recuperation. Many older people are still discovering themselves and their lives, and many do very well in retirement.

Tu admits to having a "crisis of self-identity" during the year of retirement and feeling much unhappier than he did while working.

He has no desire to run, travel or pursue other interests.

Since graduating from college, he has been drawn to the fact that technology is constantly changing.

Despite his vast experience, there is always something new to learn when he moves to a new company or works on a new project, and he calls it "a passion and not pressure".

So he repeatedly states in job interviews that he desires to work in an environment where he could contribute, saying he is prepared to do a job while also working on another project that requires assistance.

He believes now that retirement should be associated with one's passion and usefulness to society.

He says, after experiencing a quick taste of early retirement, he intends to work for another 20 years until he reaches the official retirement age.

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