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I Want to Be a Millennial When I Retire - NYTimes.com

Booming

My Story

I Want to Be a Millennial When I Retire

The author, left, writes that his son isn't conventionally successful, and yet, "Max gets up when he likes and does what he loves."

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My son Max is a 25-year-old singer and songwriter who goes by the moniker Dolfish. When my friends ask how his career is going, I say, “There’s a girl in Indiana with Dolfish tattooed on her arm,” although that doesn’t exactly answer their question.

Lucas Moser

Max, also known as Dolfish, performing at the Vaudeville Mews in Des Moines, Iowa, in November 2012.

Readers’ Comments

They know Max was signed to an indie record label when he was 23. They know he tours a lot and has been reviewed by some important music sites and even by mainstream magazines. They know these things because I send them links with messages like this: “Paste says Max is a ‘remarkably strong songwriter ... worth following his yelp down whatever future path he explores.'” Or this from American Songwriter, describing Max as having “a unique voice and lo-fi mindset” (I assume a lo-fi mindset is a good thing).

What my friends don’t know is how to measure any of this on the only scale most of us have. You know, the one the I.R.S. uses. And to be honest, I’m not sure how to answer the question either. How successful is Max’s music career? What is a tattoo on the forearm of a 20-something in a medium-size Midwestern state worth? The Eskimos have all those words for snow, and it seems the only language we have for expressing success is numeric. It may be a universal language, but it’s an impoverished one. Maybe we need a word for “never having to sit in a meeting where someone reads long power point slides out loud.” Maybe we should have an expression that captures the level of success you’ve achieved when you do exactly what you love every day.

Max gets up when he likes and does what he loves. He avoids most of the things that most of us numerically successful people complain about all the time: racing from one unreasonable deadline to the next, sitting in unproductive meetings and watching simple things made complicated by committees. And he doesn’t want for much, largely because he’s smart enough to know that the only way to be rich is to want little. He takes no money from his parents. If he doesn’t make enough from a particular tour to cover the next few months, he gets jobs substitute teaching.

Somehow he manages to save a little money. So recently, while on vacation, I was sitting on the beach with my friend Dale, a 62-year-old hospital administrator, successful by every measure. He was lamenting that our families’ vacations were about to end and he would have to go back to the daily grind. He described what he was going to do in a few years when he retires. “I’m going to wake up when I want and take a long bike ride,” he said. “Then I’m going to read. I love to read. I’m going to finally learn to play the hammered dulcimer. And if I need a little extra cash, I’ll work a few hours a week as a physical therapist, which was my first career and first love before I got an M.B.A. and ended up herding cats.”

Am I crazy, I thought, or is Dale describing Max’s life? My friend, who has everything, is working his tail off, making maximum contributions to his 401k and buying rental properties, so he can afford to have the life of someone who has none of the trappings of success.

Then I thought about what I want to do when I retire. My plan is pretty much the same as my friend’s. Basically I want to do what I did when I was in my 20s, before I “succeeded.” I want to write novels and teach part-time at a university. And travel, which I don’t have time to do now but managed to do when I was young and poor.

So we live and learn. But in between the learning, I worry about Max. Will he ever be able to get a loan from a bank? Take his family on a vacation? Can he even afford to have a family? And if so, will he have health insurance and all those other things we all acquire in that long middle career before we retire to what we love.

I also worry about whether he will have trouble finding that career if his music fails him. In short, will he become us some day?

But for now, here’s the answer I give when people ask me if Max’s career is a success. I say: “It’s off the charts. He’s living the life of a millionaire retiree.”

Previous My Story essays can be found here.

Booming: Living Through the Middle Ages offers news and commentary about baby boomers, anchored by Michael Winerip. Sign up for our weekly newsletter here. You may also follow Booming via RSS here or visit nytimes.com/booming. Our e-mail is booming@nytimes.com.

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214 Comments

Share your thoughts.

    • Erin
    • Seattle

    Thanks for writing this essay.

    Most people in the United States have a standard of living that they simply don't need. My financial habits changed when I read "Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence". This book helped me reduce my expenses enough so that I could create a 12-month emergency cushion, then cut my office hours in half (I realize that's impossible for most full-timers, but can't hurt to ask the boss).

    With the other 50% of my work week, I write fiction, pursue a part-time master's degree (slowly enough that I do not need to incur debt), and seek exciting freelance work that gives me an invaluable sense of control over my own path in life. The 10 weekly hours I freelance also pays me more than the 20 hours I spend at the office, so I plan to go full-time freelance in a month or so.

    Disclaimer: I'm married with no kids, and my husband has good health insurance. We split all expenses 50/50 (aside from the $30 a month to add me to his plan). I probably would not have pursued this path if we'd already had kids or if I was not married.

      • ChickadeeKate
      • Minnesota

      Mr. Sollisch, Imy husband and I enjoyed your article very much. Our son is currently in his third year of college as a Music Performance major. We deliberated over whether or not to encourage his study of music, or direct him into a more reliable field, like accounting or engineering. But this is his passion and talent--why counsel him to be miserable with his career and always regret and wonder what he might have done with his natural abilities? There are no guarantees in any field, but with his aptitude and work ethic, we don't worry about him. He has our full support.

        • roy
        • nj

        thats fine.. but then Max gets cancer, or in a car accident. He has n insurance because he couldn't afford it. All the doctors and hospitals want to get paid. He then reaches out to his other 25 yr old retirees for help, but they have none. They are living the life with no money. Then they ask all the other 9-5 people for help because they're the only ones who really can. They busted their ass so Max could live in retirement. They did what they didn't like so he could. Think it doesn't happen? I see these musician fundraisers all the time. check out Chi Cheng from Deftones.

          • kathyfrom nwus
          • Portland, Oregon

          One cannot assume son Max's happiness in isolation. He has a safety net dad, regardless of whether he draws upon that resource now.

            • Danielle
            • Chicago

            I suspect that for a lot of us, anything we do for pay will eventually become drudgery, even if we love it. It's always more fun to do what you don't have to do. I envy people who love their jobs 100%, but knowing that I'll never have that, I decided to go with a field that is both meaningful and lucrative. I might not have Max's carefree life, but I'll still have a good one.

              • Isabella Clochard
              • Macedonia

              Max is one smart cookie: He has figured out that the time to make your bucket list (and start living it) is when you're young.

                • WR
                • TX

                Thank you for this article. What, indeed, is the point of working at job you hate to earn money you don't have time to spend. Why dream about a rewarding life when you can have a rewarding life. This young man is self sufficient and happy. Isn't that what we all want for ourselves? I've never found happiness in a cubicle and I doubt anyone else has either.

                  • Mary Kay Klassen
                  • Mountain Lake, Minnesota

                  I think that an individual living this way is fine. It would not work if he had a wife, children, and the responsibilities and the financial costs that would incur. Also, if everyone lived that way, there would be no money for the entitlement society that exists in most of America from disability payments, free Medicare Part A for all seniors, subsidized farm subsidies, etc. The truth is that most people would rather have a life like his but their circumstances and where they live necessitate a full time job.

                    • PY
                    • Paris and NY

                    It's the parable of the fisherman and the investmenet banker:
                    http://www.wanttoknow.info/051230whatmattersinlife

                      • kas
                      • new york

                      Great article, but I don't think this really describes Millennials, many of whom do aspire to traditional money-based careers. It just describes the poor-yet-happy artist type that's existed for centuries - ie, La Boheme (before the consumption).

                        • Caroline C.
                        • Ann Arbor, MI

                        Something has been missed in this discussion -- son Max substitute teaches whenever his ends don't meet. He thus likely has a teaching degree and could go to work at a respectable career whenever he choose. He can take his livelihood risks for exactly as long as he chooses. Go Max.

                          • LostInOhio
                          • NE Ohio

                          Beautiful!

                            • annej
                            • nyc

                            If he finds a rent controlled apt in NYC he can basically live anyway he wants.

                              • Mary
                              • Deep South

                              economic success does not insure happiness. I think the younger generation is more attuned to wanting to have a fulfilling life. Life should be more than having stuff and the young seem to know it. It might be nice to have an obit with numerous achievements and a fancy former job title but I'd rather mine said she loved life and tried to be kind to all.

                                • Jessica
                                • Los Angeles

                                Man, there's so much I can say about this. I wish I could write the father and address the questions about what happens when Max gets older, will he be able to have a family, etc. I know the answer, because Max is my dad. My father is a musician who had a moderate amount of success a couple decades ago, and now gigs wherever he can find work. Takes odd jobs when the gigs aren't plentiful. My dad had a family. He still has no money. When I worry about his retirement, he likes to remind me "I don't have anything, but I don't owe anything. I'm richer than most of America." What my dad does have is invaluable: a limitless amount friends, adoring fans, and two children who worship him.

                                  • Jon
                                  • Princeton, NJ

                                  I've never understood the paradigm of work hard at a job you hate and be miserable for 40 years so that when you're old you can have an awesome retirement. Why not just have an awesome life right now instead? You might die early or lose all your savings in a financial collapse, and never even get to the payoff of all those years of drudgery. I'd rather run the risk of one day being a poor old man than have a guaranteed miserable life right now.

                                    • DAK
                                    • Atlanta

                                    Interesting article. And quite simplistic as well.

                                      • JMartin
                                      • NYC

                                      The author is a bit evasive as to where Max actually lives. Does he live at home? Does he earn enough to pay rent? Housing and it's costs are not mentioned. Somehow I have the feeling that while Max takes no money from his parents, he crashes at their house for most of the time and that means he doesn't need as much money as all that. Nice life if you can get it.

                                        • Thomas
                                        • St. Louis

                                        As a member of the Millennial generation I do see a lot of people who fit the mold you described above. And I completely agree, I do think that it is amazing that some people spend their whole lives working to merely obtain objectives they they could have gained before they became "successful." At the same point, I do think that many, if not most millennials, are still joining the traditional workforce, if not changing it. An article I read, http://bit.ly/HJ0Dsu , talks about a combination of these two principles. Most people I know who are my age and entering the work market want to make money, but also want to do something meaningful. (whatever that means to them.

                                          • Laura Brown
                                          • Orange County, NC

                                          An excellent measure of career success: “never having to sit in a meeting where someone reads long power point slides out loud.” Haha! Engaging, provocative essay. Thank you!

                                            • tvwatcher
                                            • London UK

                                            I am a Millennial and am very stressed about finding a job when I graduate from law school in the spring. Boomers seem to characterize Millennials as lazy when the truth is that many of us have big dreams and there aren't enough jobs to go around. The paths we choose to follow are sometimes deemed unrealistic by Boomers - but after studying hard for multiple degrees (now necessary for many careers) and incurring loads of debt, most Millennials hope to get a return on their investment and to land a job that is fulfilling.

                                            Boomers don't realize that there is a huge amount of competition to enter many fields - even getting an unpaid internship is highly competitive. Being qualified, smart and eager to learn are no longer guarantees for finding a job. My brother recently applied to be a waiter at a French restaurant, and he was turned down because he doesn't speak French as a second language nor does he have sommelier qualifications! And this is for a minimum wage position at a mid-tier restaurant.

                                            With the weak economy and lack of graduate-entry jobs. I applaud the author's son for seeking success out of the system. Luckily he is creative and doesn't have to fit into the law/business career path which is now so precarious. For those of us following a more conventional career path, boomers might want to think about stepping aside to let us contribute instead of criticizing us for struggling.

                                              • Wesley A
                                              • Charlotte NC

                                              As a Civil engineering student right now, I often question whether this education and career path is truly right for me. However, I have come to realize that what really matters is how you use the money you earn from your job, as well as how you spend your time in general. In my free time, I hike, I do photography, I sleep outside under the stars, I do not want that to change. With a career that often promises six figure salaries, I do not want to become a suburban dweller, I want to use the money that I earn to explore my passions, spend time with the ones that I care about, not buy materialistic things. Civil engineering is also a passion for me, I get a giddy feeling when I see a construction site, or whenever I see a D8 bulldozer, I think that many of my peers see engineering as a way to simply make a lot of money, which is an unfortunate obsession nowadays.

                                                • Utopia1
                                                • Las Vegas,NV

                                                The writer seems to think his son is living well with his bohemian lifestyle but the article is written from a middle-aged father's perspective. It would be interesting to get the son's point of view; we may find that things are not so rosy and he may desire his fathers stability and success.

                                                  • doug Taylor
                                                  • new york ny

                                                  Money is only one type of currency.
                                                  There are many other kinds of currencies in life.
                                                  Max is doing just fine!

                                                    • Bill Clark J.D.
                                                    • sfo

                                                    so, he is 25 and free, that is all well, but 35 comes fast, then 45.

                                                    at 45, it won't seem so romantic, as a bank account, in the end, allows more freedom imho.

                                                    goodluck though, kids nowadays, just do what they want, for better or worse.