Freedom does not seem to be a universal value. I say that because not everyone values freedom and is willing to work for it. It appears to no longer be uncommon for young people to live at home or in their parents’ basement into their 30s. This is not a criticism of those people, who probably face difficult choices. But not everyone is trying to find freedom. Those who are will probably move through the following stages. These don’t necessarily happen in order or over a set timeline. However, freedom is a mindset more than anything, and I believe that it is at odds with the default outlook of much of our society.
An early stage is becoming independent from parents and caregivers. For me, this included living abroad and attending university away from home. I learned many skills and improved my ability to manage my life. It was a first step toward self-determination. The education I got wasn’t particularly practical, and it didn’t lead to a specific career path. I get the impression that there are people who go to university so they won’t have to determine their life work. They choose a course of study that leads to a predictable career path. The transition from education to working, often in a large corporation, takes little real though. Some of these people never had dreams of anything larger, while others give up their dreams in order to be practical. I don’t mean to say that these people aren’t free, but in my mind freedom equates with choosing what to make of my life.
I have noticed that employment can cause dependence in two ways. First, it provides a regular income. Many people translate this into regular spending patterns and much of the money becomes committed before it is earned, either to debt payments or consumption patterns. We might allow our neighbours to dictate our lifestyle, by trying to “keep up with the Joneses.” And while earning a generous income can move a person toward eliminating debt and building financial independence, when combined with expectations for consumption it can be addictive. Second, work provides meaning and opportunities for socialization for many people. How many people define themselves by the work they do? When I meet new people, and they ask what I do, I sometimes wonder if they see me as “a stockbroker”, or if they are simply curious about how I spend a large part of my time. Being free means having meaning in my life outside of my employment and having a lifestyle that could survive a disrupted income.
A major hindrance to freedom is debt. Debt has rightly been referred to as economic servitude. When people buy anything, including a television, a vacation or a car, on a payment plan, they are giving up some of their freedom. They put at risk their assets and their credit score in order to have instant gratification. There are debts that make sense, when it’s a house or an education, but even then caution is warranted. I was talking with a retiree the other day who bought his first house for less than his annual income. It was a 500 square foot bungalow. Another retiree told me that they bought an 1100 square foot bungalow and their parents asked how they would be able to manage so much house. Is it necessary to go into 30 years worth of debt for a house? Is 10 years of debt reasonable for an education?
Suppose, then, that an individual is free of debt and gains financial independence. This is economic freedom, but there’s more to life than just money. To truly feel free, people need to feel that their life is meaningful and that they’re making a difference. As far as I can tell, people have a desire to use their abilities to create something worthwhile. This may be dependent on economic freedom, but it may be a completely separate aspect. There may be no need to be financially independent before figuring out what you should do with your life. It seems like the passion that results allows people to support themselves and their families with income, if necessary.
Freedom doesn’t necessarily take money. Economic freedom depends on being free of debt and being able to produce enough income to support oneself, whether it’s through work or investments. Freedom in the rest of life is the ability to work for something that is meaningful to oneself. Whether it’s a job, a cause or just a hobby, freedom comes from knowing that you are spending your time and energy in the way that’s right for you.