Field of Science

Early retirement

 - I want to strike it rich and retire early.

Who said that? Well, many people do. And even more people have the desire. But suppose they really did it. Consider this true story from our human past, at a key turning point in human evolution four million years ago. The scene is the well known leader ape-man defeats rival clan's leader with a bone in 2001: a space odyssey:

Our hero of the tribe is about to fight the leader of the rival clan as in a flash of genius he picks up a femur lying around and uses it as a weapon to blow his opponent to smithereens. The bone is thrown, and you know the rest of the story.

But back on Earth, still four million years ago, our hero is celebrated as the clan quickly dominates all others perfecting the use of their new found weapon. He now no longer has to do much else that remind people that he invented the club, and they gladly provide him with everything his heart desires. He gets all the best mates, all the best food, and all of it without lifting a finger, because his invention has made his now fast growing clan the richest and mightiest in the Serengeti. He has, in words unfamiliar to him, retired early.

Now consider whether this likely went down this way. Would the rest of the clan really treat him like a king who needn't ever provide for himself ever again as long as he lived? It is arguable that his contribution to the clan was worth so much that the clan should now treat him for the rest of his life. However, nothing actually works like that anywhere in the animal kingdom. Nowhere would apes, or monkeys, or dolphins, or little white mice accept that one of their own could retire early because of what they did in the past. Everywhere but among humans, that is. 

In fact, the individual who invents something which increases the wealth and improves the lives of its conspecifics is exactly that last individual that should retire. If he does, society is now left without one of its smartest individuals, one of their very best inventors. Instead of retiring, our leader should continue to create new inventions, doing what he does best for the betterment of society. In short, retiring is a waste! A waste of ape resources, if you will.

Luckily, it doesn't seem to be case that very many great contributors to society elects to spend the last 50 years of their life in an armchair or snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef.  I recall that some people did retire early in their life after becoming millionaires in the dot-com bubble, but I wonder how much people like them really could have contributed in any way if they hadn't retired. I can think of many others who chose to continue working even after striking it rich at a young age, and even more who aren't financially able to do so, but who never would either way. Scientists, for example, are not driven by money, but by a desire to learn. At least that is what I have heard, and I could be wrong. If I am, perhaps that's why scientists get such pathetic salaries?

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