Avoid Becoming Institutionalized By Your Job

Ah, Labor Day. Can you believe summer is almost over? The chill is already in the air and school will be starting soon. We had a fun summer, but it was too hectic. The beginning of autumn will still be busy for us with a new school, FinCon (financial blogger conference), visiting family, and job training (Mrs. RB40). After October, everything should slow down, though. We’re really looking forward to hunkering down and taking it easy for a while.

Anyway, I hope everyone is enjoying their Labor Day holiday. Labor Day celebrates workers who have made our country prosperous. Workers have came a long way since Labor Day was made a national holiday. Our wage and hours are a lot reasonable, but workers are still dissatisfied and disgruntled. So in honor of Labor Day, let’s complain about our jobs a bit.

avoid becoming institutionalized by your job

Image from Shawshank Redemption, a great movie.

Work as an institution

A while back, Jason, a reader, brought up the idea of workers being institutionalized. This is quite interesting because I haven’t thought of it that way before. When I hear the word institutionalized, I usually think of prison, but I guess work can become like a prison, too. We can get used to the office environment and forget there are many alternative ways to live.

When I was an engineer, I never really considered living life any other way. I put up with the stress and demands of the job. I worked long hours when a project was due. I went to mandatory meetings that weren’t relevant to my work. I did what I needed to do for those paychecks. Eventually, work became 90% chores and 10% fun. I put up with the negatives until I started to have some physical and mental health issues. That’s when I knew I had to get out somehow. I had worked at the same company for 16 years so there was quite a bit of institutionalization to overcome.

Income – The first thing we had to do was to figure out how to survive without my income. It took a few years, but eventually we came up with a combination that worked for us. We saved and invested our money in income generating assets like dividend stocks and rental properties. I also found a way to make a little income from blogging and that helped immensely. Mrs. RB40 continues to work so at least we have one stable source of income for now.

Structure – Work provides a big part of the structure in our lives. My day was dictated by work from getting up at 7 am until I got home at 6:30 pm. Those days were usually full of meetings and projects. Upon retirement/quitting your job, your day will be completely unstructured. Many people seem to have a problem with this. You have to find your own reason for getting out of bed. For me, it’s pretty easy because Junior wakes me up before 7 am every morning. Being a stay at home dad fills up my schedule quite nicely.

Social life – Our social life often revolves around our coworkers because we spend so much time together. It can be tough to leave the people you talk with every day. You’ll have to find ways to make new friends once you leave the old office environment. This can be challenging when you retire or become self employed especially if you’re an introvert like me. I still struggle with this. I think it’s harder to make new friends as you get older, too. When you’re 3, every new kid you meet is your friend. I’m a bit jealous of the little munchkins.

Status – A job gives you status and a sense of belonging. When I was working fulltime, I could tell new people that I meet that I am an engineer and they’ll instantly have an idea of what I do. Now, it’s a bit more difficult because people don’t know what to think when I tell them I’m a stay at home dad/blogger. I have to go into a lengthy explanation and as an introvert, I don’t really like doing that. I imagine it would be more difficult to retire or change career if you have a prestigious job like being an executive, doctor, or a lawyer.

Job security – Job security is a good thing, but it can institutionalize you. If you find yourself doing just enough to get by because your job is secure, then it might be time to reexamine your career. We need to keep growing to feel happy. It’s not fun to stagnate at your job even if it is secure.

Don’t be institutionalized by your job

So are you happy working at your job? Or are you just there because of the paycheck? Don’t become institutionalized by your job. You need to keep your options open. Here are some of the things that you can do to avoid being stuck in a job you don’t like.

  • Always be on the lookout for a new job or career.
  • Acquire new skills so you can direct your own life/career.
  • Try self employment.
  • Take a sabbatical to figure things out.
  • Figure out how to make money doing something you enjoy.
  • Take on some side hustles.
  • Go back to school to change careers.
  • Travel and see how other people live.
  • Have a social life outside of work.
  • Work toward financial independence so you have more options.
  • Read and get inspired. There are a lot of books and blogs about how people changed their lives.
  • Anymore tips from our readers?

Life is short and you need to enjoy your work. Okay, this is a bit longer than I intended so let’s wrap it up. Those baby back ribs aren’t going to BBQ themselves. Here is what I’d like to hear from our readers.

If money isn’t an issue, would you keep working in your current job? Why or why not?

Have a great Labor Day!

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Joe started Retire by 40 in 2010 to figure out how to retire early. After 16 years of investing and saving, he achieved financial independence and retired at 38.

Passive income is the key to early retirement. This year, Joe is investing in commercial real estate with CrowdStreet. They have many projects across the USA so check them out!

Joe also highly recommends Personal Capital for DIY investors. They have many useful tools that will help you reach financial independence.
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29 thoughts on “Avoid Becoming Institutionalized By Your Job”

  1. As a counter point to this article … the one advantage of being Institutionalized , is that with time one could assume that one’s job becomes easier (this is not always the case) and this gives more time to create the “side hustle” which could blossom into something one could achieve his financial independence on.

  2. If money wasn’t an issue, I’d still be teaching. If anything, I would consider going down to part-time and continue my side hustles. I really enjoy what I do, it’s creative and I’m constantly finding new things I like about it. Of course, maybe I’m super positive this year because my group of students (6th graders) are really quite awesome (polite and respectful – imagine that!). Ask me again in a few years or in a year I have a rowdy bunch (like last year – that group was terrible!) I might change my mind. 😉

  3. Joe,

    This is another post that we can related to.

    We have been in the same company for over 27 years.  We need 5.75 long years to reach 55 to each double our pension amt and to receive medical coverage of 9k each.  These are truly golden hand cuffs.

    It definitely feels like doing time in a cube farm.  We hate the stress that comes with the job but we have been slowly reprogramming our brains to not take things so personally.  It is tough when you care so much. For me to cope, I just accept the fact that I am on call 24×7 and that I have to work additional hours at night and on some weekends. 

    Jane was ready to resign a couple of months ago and then her boss’s boss was unexpectedly fired.  Now Jane and her peers does not have to do those useless reports and to attend countless unproductive meetings. Just one person in the company can make your life so difficult.  Jane is slowly getting out of her funk.  Let’s see what will the replacement mgr do…

    I am glad that I stumbled onto this site early this year to see if we are doing OK finanically. It is invaluable to see what other readers invest and plan their retirement. For the last 20 years, I have always been obsessed with savings for retirement and to achieve the FI goal.

    Instead of constantly hating my job lately, I focused on the end game.  Although, I feel that we reached FI with the passive income generated from our individual muni bonds, I am obsessed with ensuring that we have multiple sources of income (muni bonds, savings, pension at 55, 401k at 59.5 and SS at 62) to cover our expenses in case one or more sources are gone.  

     Instead of being in a funk, I focus on reaching a goal of one mill or more in each of our 401Ks by 55.  If we are constantly living in our woes and we quit then we lose out on an opportunity to buildup our 401K. The company matches 3%, we contribute 10% and we also can put in another 5.5K in the 401K catchup.  We selected guarantee fixed 5%.  It grows slowly but at least I sleep well at nights because I do not worry losing principle. Even if we don’t reach 55, each remaining year(s) of working will allow us to save more in personal savings and in our 401K which will provide more financial security.

    For Jane to cope, she has been looking for a new job in our company but nothing she is interested so far.  She is trying to refocus away from work by doing something creative like baking. We also have been taking long stretches of time off to recharge our batteries.

    I know that we should be OK if we leave now. Since we are so close to 55,  it would be crazy to walk away. Jane won’t commit to this. We just take it a pay check at a time. It would be nice if at least one of us makes it to 55 so that we can get a larger pension and some medical coverage.  I don’t want to regret walking away when we are so close.  If we get layoff then at least I tried and I won’t have any guilt.  My co-worker volunteered for a layoff 3 years ago and he regrets it.  He took the severance package which was great but he thought it would be easy to find another job.  Well, it took him a year to find a job and he hates it worst than our company. 

    It is extremely unlikely that we reach 55 in the company due to out-sourcing and cost cutting.  More re-orgs and layoffs are scheduled starting this month. We are ready for whatever is installed for us.

    • 5 years is a long time to spend in a job that you don’t like. If I was in your position, I’d probably try to endure it too. The benefit is just too great. I think finding another job within the same company is a really good idea. You can try a new group and see if it’s a better fit. Can you transition to a less demanding role? Maybe not be on call 24/7?

      • Joe,
        I agree with you that I should endure the 5+ years to obtain better benefits. Including myself, there are only of two people that do our work. There is a freeze on postings. New positions are hired from overseas. It is difficult to transfer anywhere but I will keep looking for another position.

        5 years is a long time for a job I hate but I am retraining my brain to cope with it. They are looking to replace what we support with new software and outsourcing so I think I may have a job for another 2-3 years anyway. I just hope for a severance package if I eliminated before 55.

  4. Hi RB40, I think I’m the one who originally commented about becoming institutionalized.

    I see it in a lot of people; co-workers, friends, etc. And, it doesn’t even have to be in one particular company – I’ve found that in my own case, my own career has become the institution.

    As I get closer to my goal of FI, I can feel the extent of it. I’m now getting some anxiety about leaving, not because of the finances, but I keep thinking “what will I do?” and in those moments, I can really relate to that picture.

    But, on the other hand, it’s also exciting, and I know that leaving on my own terms is better than it being an unwelcome surprise. Plus, at my age, it’s completely possible to start and finish an entirely new career if I want.

    Only a couple more years left before parole, fellas. I’ll see you all out on the coast – just look for the old boat.

    PS – I’m not sure why, but your website sometimes loses comments I post.

    • Yes, it was you who left the original comment. 🙂
      Good luck with your journey. I think you really should look into a different career. It will give you more purpose and I think it will be more fun than just retiring.
      Does the site just blank out? I’m trying to fix that. I think it’s some memory issue.

      • Yes, I sometimes just get a blank page when doing a comment or even just visiting the site.

        As for a new career, yes, it’s possible. But if I did go back, I think I’d feel like I failed myself; that I wasn’t able to make it on the outside, just like that old guy in the movie. So, I’m going to try to break my conditioning, leave the old identity behind, and try to live a better life.

  5. When I was working, I would seriously look for new opportunities every two years just to make sure my income kept pace and I wasn’t missing something.

    My clients became my friends, and all was good. But I’ve found I made new friends after leaving finance.

  6. Money’s not an issue and I continue working my current job. Mainly because I like it. Over the past 25 years I’ve become a world-class expert in my field, at least in my management’s eyes, and they treat me accordingly. Somehow I can’t envision a life where my big decision of the day is fish or chicken for dinner.

    My career didn’t start out charmed, I wanted out after only my first week on the job. But I stuck with it and slowly carved out my niche, then when I reached financial independence a decade ago, the sailing became much smoother. Even though I’m happy with how things are now, I realize it won’t stay this way forever– a management shakeup can make my job worse, or if I find inspiration for a novel or a business idea, I can pursue it without asking. I’m not giving up my financial independence no matter what, I continue to save way more than I spend.

    Speaking of jobs, I bet mine is easier than yours (parenting). The long hours and demands on our attention may be pretty similar, but unlike work there’s neither escape nor time off for good behavior in parenting!

    • You’re in such a great position. That’s due to hard work and foresight.
      Parenting is difficult, but my mom is helping out now so I can get a little time off here and there. She’s going home soon, though. It’ll be really tough without her help.

  7. Interesting. I like the structure that my work brings into my life. While I aspire to get my own business going, I honestly do not think I would mind working for someone else as long as I have a side hustle going on that provides satisfactory income. I have two problems: 1. A boss that can control my life if he wants to. 2. Someone else is controlling my income. Once I establish myself and no longer need my job in order to make a decent living, I don’t think I will have a problem with having a boss.

    To put things into context, I have been in Corporate America for just about a year now. It may just be that I am not fully demoralized yet.

    If money wasn’t an issue, I will most certainly pursue my own endeavors.

  8. Totally agree with you using the word institutionalized. The sad thing is that many people don’t realize this during their entire working life. While I love my job I am definitely ways to diversify my income steams so I’m not tied to my job forever.

    • I think most people get set in their way as they keep working in the same job. By then, it’s just easier to stay than to venture out. It’s great that you love your job. That’s not common anymore.

  9. If money were no object, I would be out of my job by the end of the month (got to spend some time organizing files and such, not to leave them in a lurch!). I wouldn’t even live in the same city. I like my job and my coworkers…but there are other things I would rather be doing…like spending time with my kids! We talked if the best option for us would be for one of us to stay home with the kids, but we realized we could both work hard for a few more years and be FI. So we are just going to put in our time, and should still get over a decade with our kids before they head to college. I don’t want to regret missing my kids childhood!

    • Good luck on your FI journey. It’s difficult now, but it will be worth it. Yeah, don’t miss the best part of your kids’ childhood. It’s pretty amazing how fast they change.

  10. Love your posts. I used to be an engineer as well but now work in the financial sector as a self employed financial security advisor and investment representative. I have had challenges in telling people of my job change when I left engineering but have really loved my new vocation and am happy to share with people what I do know. Thank goodness my wife is really supportive of my new career as well. Perhaps when people ask you what you now do you could say – “I am doing my dream job; it involves being a home engineer, psychologist, day care provider and many other skills I didn’t know I had.I am having the time of my life.”

    Because of what I share with people I believe I have helped a number of people reassess their careers. Truth is a lot of people would like to break free like me but are afraid to do so and have to stay where they are due to fear. I recommend the book 4-hour work week. I personally love to share how I help people reach their goals and dreams and give them an example of who I helped lately. Keep doing what you love and bringing your wonderful posts.


  11. That is so right-on, using the word “institutionalized” as it fits perfectly. As someone who went 31 years with the last 9 years feeling totally golden-handcuffed to what was a raided and diminished retirement benefit I can say it was the hardest thing I’ve ever HAD to do. It was like doing-time so yes, I was totally institutionalized. I was working through most of your list of things to do to avoid being institutionalized but I was doing them in preparation for my “release date”. Financial Independence does provide options and since then I have actually enjoyed working a couple of gigs that aligned with my passions that I was very interested in learning and doing. A far more free and rewarding way to live. The work your 30 and get out was the only way I knew. My eyes are open now. It is a message I share with my kids. Life is short… Break Out!

    • Wow, 9 years would be tough for anyone. It sounds like you are doing really well now so that’s great. I wouldn’t recommend 9 years for anyone, though. That’s a really long time to be handcuffed.

  12. Early in my career, a financial adviser came to my office and said, “you may wake up someday and think, I want to do something else.” Was he ever right! That is why you make a plan. Save, save, save. Live within/below your means. And still enjoy your life. So when it’s time for a change, you are ready, no regrets.
    My volunteer efforts give me the greatest, feel good satisfaction. I transport rescued dogs and we are considered “a special breed” and so appreciated. Get out there and volunteer, if you can.

    • I wish that financial adviser came to our office. Of course, I’d probably ignore him…. Young people always think they know everything. 🙂 Great work with volunteering!

  13. Perfect Post as far as I am concerned. Life is too short. A lot of people let life happen to them instead of trying to direct the path somewhat. I just left my job as a firefighter (at 40 by the way) for all of the reasons you left your job. I am a stay at home father as well and magically my days are not boring. My grandfather had regrets about working too hard in his life and depriving himself too much on his deathbed as well as my doctor father-in-law who passed at 65 of pancreatic cancer. He regretted not spending more time with family, working too much, and not traveling enough. Making the most of our short time here by making ourselves better people, having amazing experiences, and caring for those around us instead of following the “rules” of the institution is a much more productive use of time in the big picture in my humble opinion.

    • Thanks for your comment. 65 is so young to pass away. You never know what life is going to bring, though, so we need to enjoy the present. Did you put in enough time to get retirement benefit?

  14. This article really hit home! I have been with the same company for 23 years. My current job is great; I head up our company’s philanthropy efforts. You would think giving away money would be personally rewarding, but it’s basically spending a lot of time listening and telling people “no.” That doesn’t make you a popular person.

    I lan to retire in eight years, so I feel I am locked into my job due to the benefits and defined pension plan. It would be crazy to walk away from those benefits. My challenge is to invest the 50-60 hours per week to keep up, while I save for early retirement. Your list of items to avoid institutionalization is very helpful. Thanks for the great post!!!


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