Zero Income Years

A coworker recently wrote an article about how they’d never been without a job for more than a few days since they were 18 years old. A twenty-year unbroken streak. I completely understand their pride in that accomplishment.

I feel like I have a pretty strong work ethic (it’s the Midwestern upbringing, don’t you know). When I was 17 years old, I started working running printing presses for an insurance company. I worked for the same company for about seven years, then left my home state to come to California.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t left that first job when I did. I’m a creature of habit, so part of me thinks I might still be working there. You know, if the company still exists. But I have to say that I’m grateful that didn’t happen and I’m not in my 44th year of working for the same company in the same building in the same city.

Some time ago, in a long-gone world, many people would put in 20 years at a job then retire. That boggles my mind, but it was still relatively common when I entered the workforce. My printing job had profit sharing, so after 20 or more years of accumulation and being fully vested, that probably would have been a decent amount of money.

But I didn’t stay. I packed up my guitars and moved to California to make a living as a musician. And somehow, I actually did make a living as a professional, full-time musician for a few years. Which is a rare thing indeed (ask any musician) and something for which I’ll be eternally grateful.

For most of those years, though, I struggled. I was pretty broke for essentially the entire decade of the 1980s. I said I made a living as a musician. I didn’t say I made a good living. 🙂

But the point of all of this is when I look at my Social Security earnings record, that green paper they used to send out every year, I see five years between 1988 and 2001 where I show zero Social Security earnings.

Yet those were some of the best years of my life.

Because for me, the 20 or 40-year profit-sharing cash-out or retirement or gold watch (did anyone ever really get a gold watch?) has never been the point. That was not the life I wanted. I wanted to be creative, and I wanted to be free. The day I walked out of the insurance company print shop for the last time, I was, very intentionally, free. And I remained free for more than a decade.

When I retired from the music business in 1990. I poked around for a while, went back to the printing world for a time (mostly doing bindery work, not press work), then serendipitously discovered computers and the world wide web. That’s where I’ve been working since 1995.

That year off in 2001? That came after a hosting company I worked for was sold (juuuust before the bubble burst – lucky timing), and I got a check that allowed me to do nothing for a year. And I very happily did nothing for a year.

I say I did “nothing,” but of course, that’s not true. I just didn’t work for anyone. I didn’t draw a paycheck. I didn’t even try to earn money. Was that smart? I thought it was. Was it good planning for the future or retirement? Haha. Um, no.

But what it was was freedom. And to me, that’s worth more than any retirement account. (Which I have now, by the way, don’t get me wrong. 😉).

I chose to pursue that freedom when I was young, and I don’t regret it. When most of my peers were in their first jobs (some after going to college), I was on the road playing punk rock to 50-100 people a night. On my 21st birthday, I was on tour playing a gig somewhere between Minneapolis and New York City.

When I came to California, I joined a reggae band and played all over the world. Those were my making-a-living-as-a-musician days. I was still broke all the time, but come on – there’s no better life than playing music. Roaming from place to place like some kind of pirate or grifter. Arrive, plunder, leave. Ha. That’s why so many people are willing to do it for nothing (or to lose money doing it).

Many people work toward freedom in retirement (clearly the smart thing to do). I did it backward. I front-loaded my life with freedom. It was essentially like retiring when I was 24, and I went to live in an RV (my RV being the band van, bus, or plane).

When I was 24 I knew that the choice I was making was unusual, probably dangerous, and definitely foolish. My family and some of my friends made that pretty clear. I knew I was trading security for freedom. That I’d likely have to work later into my “retirement” years someday to make up for it.

But I still believe it was a solid choice.

If I hadn’t lucked into working for internet companies at the ripe old age of 35 I may well be singing a different tune. Computers kind of killed the small press printing industry. Without computers (or more precisely, the internet and web) I might not look back on rejecting security as a good thing.

But it did work out.

So even though I hope there’s a lot more of it left to be lived, I feel like I already won at life.

day 20


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