An Obligation to Work?

The United States Congress has a new member this week. 

After losing the race for governor of Montana in November, Greg Gianforte turned around and won a special election to fill Montana’s one seat in the House of Representatives.

Most people are talking about how he won his seat despite body slamming a reporter the night before the election.

Instead, I want to talk about his views on Social Security and retirement.

(And yes, I recognize that only a personal finance blog can be interested in retirement policies while a politician is beating up the press. But we’re all nerds here, and we’re okay with it.)

Biblical Retirement

Here’s the newest Congressman from Montana on retirement:

“There’s nothing in the Bible that talks about retirement. And yet it’s been an accepted concept in our culture today. Nowhere does it say, ‘Well, he was a good and faithful servant, so he went to the beach.’ It doesn’t say that anywhere.

“The example I think of is Noah. How old was Noah when he built the ark? 600. He wasn’t like, cashing Social Security checks, he wasn’t hanging out, he was working. So, I think we have an obligation to work. The role we have in work may change over time, but the concept of retirement is not biblical.”

Obviously this isn’t a great policy position on its face. I’m not sure you could get much support for raising the retirement age above 600. Nor should laws be based on Biblical interpretations.

However, the underlying concept struck me as reminiscent of an ongoing discussion in the Financial Independence community.

To Work or Not to Work

The Financial Independence/Early Retirement community seems split between two different end goals. One group wants to hit their financial independence number so that they can retire from paid work and spend their time doing work that is more interesting to them, regardless of the paycheck.

The other group is working to retire early so that they can actually retire and relax.

Among the first group you will here statements like “I can’t imagine myself just sitting around.” “I don’t intend to ever stop working in one form or another.” “I want to work for myself as long as I am able.”

Gianforte is taking this idea and pushing it one step further. Not only should you keep working because you want to keep working, but you have a moral obligation to keep working.

The implication even beyond that is that if you have a moral obligation to keep working, then the government shouldn’t be encouraging retirement with programs like Social Security and Medicare.

A Moral Obligation?

I feel a personal moral obligation to help those who are less fortunate.

I have had a lot of lucky breaks in my life and a lot of great support to help get me to where I am today. Many people are not so lucky. I feel that I have an obligation to use the product of my good fortune to help those who are not so fortunate.

I consistently feel that I am not living up to that obligation. But I am trying.

That said, I don’t know that I could possibly assign that obligation to all of society. I feel it myself, but that doesn’t mean that everyone else feels it. It doesn’t mean that it is objectively true.

Who am I to know better than you how to live your life?

I should note, as well, that there is also a difference between a moral obligation to help those who are less fortunate and a blanket moral obligation to work.

As you may be able to tell, I am not on board with Gianforte here. However, I thought it might be an interesting idea to throw out to all of you for your thoughts.

So what do you think? Is there a moral obligation to work if you are able? And if so, should the government enforce this obligation by removing the safety net?

14 thoughts on “An Obligation to Work?”

  1. Oh dear. I do admit I facepalmed when I read his quote. Uhm. I don’t think any type of religion should be the basis for our understanding of retirement. People didn’t retire back in the olden days because they didn’t live long enough to retire. Or if you couldn’t work, your kids would care for you.

    Anyway, troublesome quote aside, I don’t think we have a moral obligation to work. At least in the traditional sense. Most early retirees (and normal retirees) that I know stay INCREDIBLY busy. The Bible combats the idea of sloth and encourages hard work–and early retirees are doing just that, but not in the traditional 9-to-5 way. We need retirees because they can give back in ways that people stuck in jobs just can’t. I don’t know anyone who lazes about on their couch eating bon bons.
    Mrs. Picky Pincher recently posted…What A Frugal Memorial Day Weekend!My Profile

    1. This is a good point. I think we need to make sure to differentiate between “retirement” and “sloth.” The fact that you are not earning a paycheck does not mean that you are not contributing to society in some way.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
      Matt recently posted…Make Space to Be WrongMy Profile

  2. I believe we have obligation to take care of ourselves and that requires work. But if we are able to retire prior to the normal age then we should not feel obligated to do work beyond that if our needs are covered. With that said, I do think a society should assist others who are not able to fend for themselves, which could include work for money to donate to causes and/or volunteer efforts, etc.

    1. Fair points. I definitely think we need to do more as a society to help those who are struggling. Working for the sake of working doesn’t seem to push us in that direction.

      Thanks for your thoughts, Amy!
      Matt recently posted…Make Space to Be WrongMy Profile

  3. I would suggest this politicians ought to get lost in the woods, as we’d be better off without such rhetoric aside from an obviously fragile ego to resort to violence.
    There are so many reasons society in the US and other countries has evolved to include retirement. I think of professions that take a lot physically where the expected retirement age is still 55 (police / fire / teachers (on their feet all day)). A guy I know went into construction either the summer before college or with the intent of skipping it. His older coworkers convinced him to go to school, so he would have options as they watched their options become limited by over worked joints & muscles.
    I wasn’t sure what career path to consider when I was younger, (I knew not construction) but I didn’t think I could be cooped up in an office for 30-40 years. However as I explored other options, and ruled them out, I am cooped up in an office. My field has the ability to save lives, or reduce the risk of people getting sick, so I feel it is an ok trade off for now. I’m pursuing FI (as you mention) for the option of doing other work without considering the income, to continue to contribute to society.
    Since retiring my parents have joined committees, volunteered at an animal shelter, worked fund raisers, and my mom, a former teacher stepped back into the classroom to bring science lessons to autistic students. Any of these pursuits as a full time job can be exhausting, and having volunteers show up to help balances the obligation of those full time employees.
    Stephen Cope’s book “The great work of your life” is an eye opening read about how people have pursued their passion / calling / dharma. Some people can trust the food & shelter will come to be when needed, because they are on their path. I’m not there yet, so I’m working on financial independence to cover the necessities and figure out where my skills best meet needs. For now, it is making sure quality product is produced at my workplace.

    1. The difference between physical labor and desk work was one of my first thoughts when I read this quote. If you take the position that people are able to work at their job for their whole lives, then you have lived a very privileged life. Lots of people are no longer able to work as they age. It isn’t always a choice.

      I will have to check that Cope book out. Sounds interesting.

      Thanks for the comment Jacq!
      Matt recently posted…You Always Have a ChoiceMy Profile

  4. I figured since you used a biblical example I would too 🙂

    As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace
    1 Peter 4:10

    So like others have said I would love to find something that I am passionate about that would allow me to continue working and serving others in a manner that is helpful and would be a good steward of the gifts/talents that I have.

    I think it’s probably how I am wired and sounds like you as well.
    Mustard Seed Money recently posted…The Power of Self-TalkMy Profile

  5. For once I won’t be the one to mention a book although I may have to get the one Jacq recommended.

    Let’s see — I don’t know the bible that well but I would venture to say there’s nothing in it about congressmen/women earning $174K a year or their average pension being $72K a year. Who needs Social Security with that kind of pension?

    I don’t think it’s anyone’s moral obligation to work. As Amy said, I do think it’s an obligation to take care of oneself, and for most, that requires work. I wouldn’t mind if there was no social security system had I been allowed to keep/invest the huge portion of my salary that has been taken out for years.
    Mrs. Groovy recently posted…There Is No Excuse for Being a Financial MoronMy Profile

    1. Wikipedia has his net worth at $315 million, so I don’t think he’s worried about Social Security or the congressional pension. I would like to hope that if I ever had that kind of money I would keep a stronger grasp on reality.

      Thanks for stopping by!
      Matt recently posted…You Always Have a ChoiceMy Profile

  6. Hey, Matt. Way to generate a very thoughtful discussion. I love it. Here are my twisted views. You don’t have a moral obligation work. You do have a moral obligation to not be a teat-sucking layabout (providing you’re of sound mind and body, of course). So if you’ve saved enough money to live off of, and you don’t require any government handouts, great. Work as much or as little as you like. I do believe in a safety net. But I don’t believe the compassion-industrial complex has an unlimited right to my money and wealth. If it did, I would be FINO–Free In Name Only. Oh, and just so you know, I feel the same way about security. Yes, I believe in police, courts, and national defense. But I don’t believe the security-industrial complex has an unlimited right to my money and wealth as well. Call me a vile scumbag, but I don’t want to surrender any more of money or freedom to either complex. If that means neither the compassion-industrial complex nor security-industrial complex can complete its mission, too bad. Sorry for the semi-rant, Matt, but whenever I come across a big government topic, especially as it relates to personal finance, I get riled up.
    Mr. Groovy recently posted…There Is No Excuse for Being a Financial MoronMy Profile

    1. Gotta admit that I’ve never heard the phrase “compassion-industrial complex” before. From the numbers that I’ve seen, the caricature of the “undeserving” welfare recipient who could work but chooses to mooch off of taxpayer money is drastically overrepresented in our discussions of the safety net. While there are certainly some who abuse the system, there are far far more who need help and are underserved by the safety net.

      Thanks for the comment, Mr. G!
      Matt recently posted…You Always Have a ChoiceMy Profile

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