IN THE BEGINNING
In the beginning, there was no retirement. There were no old people. In the Stone Age, everyone was fully employed until age 20, by which time nearly everyone was dead, usually of unnatural causes. Even in Biblical times, when a fair number of people made it into old age, retirement still had not been invented and respect for old people remained high. In those days, it was customary to carry on until you dropped, regardless of your age group. When a patriarch could no longer farm, herd cattle or pitch a tent, he opted for more specialized, less labor-intensive work, he moved in with his kids.
As the centuries passed, the elderly population increased. By early medieval times, their numbers had reached critical mass. It was no longer just a matter of respecting the occasional white-bearded patriarch. Old people were everywhere, giving advice, repeating themselves, complaining about rheumatism, trying to help, getting in the way and making younger people feel guilty. Plus they tended to hang on to their wealth and property. This made them very unpopular with their middle-aged sons, who were driven to earn their inheritances the old-fashioned way, by committing patricide. Even as late as the mid-18th century, there was a spate of such killings in France. In 1882, Anthony Trollope wrote a futuristic novel,”he Fixed Period,” in which he foresaw retiring large numbers of old men to a place where they would be encouraged to enjoy a year of contemplation, followed by a peaceful chloroforming. But this was hardly an acceptable long-term strategy.
BISMARCK INVENTS RETIREMENT
In 1883, Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck of Germany had a problem. Marxists were threatening to take control of Europe. To help his countrymen resist their blandishments, Bismarck announced that he would pay a pension to any nonworking German over age 65. Bismarck was no dummy. Hardly anyone lived to be 65 at the time, given that penicillin would not be available for another half century. Bismarck not only co-opted the Marxists, but set the arbitrary world standard for the exact year at which old age begins and established the precedent that government should pay people for growing old.
Retirement came in very handy in the United States, where large numbers of aging factory workers were wandering around the Industrial Revolution, dropping things into the works, slowing down assembly lines, taking too many personal days and usurping the places of younger, more productive men with families to support. It was one thing when an occasional superannuated farmer leaned on his hoe in an agrarian culture — a few bales of hay more or less didn’t matter. But it was quite another when lots of old people caused great unemployment among younger workers by refusing to retire. The Great Depression made the situation even worse. It was a Darwinian sacrificial moment. Retirement was a necessary adaptation and everybody knew it, but the old guys were not going quietly. The toughest among them refused to quit, even when plant managers turned up the conveyor belts to Chaplinesque speeds.
THE BIG PAYOFF
By 1935, it became evident that the only way to get old people to stop working for pay was to pay them enough to stop working. A Californian, Francis Townsend, initiated a popular movement by proposing mandatory retirement at age 60. In exchange, the Government would pay pensions of up to $200 a month, an amount equivalent at the time to a full salary for a middle-income worker. Horrified at the prospect of Townsend’s radical generosity, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed the Social Security Act of 1935, which made workers pay for their own old-age insurance.
SENIORS ARE BORN
The modern day illusion of retirement has been that of sipping tropical drinks on a beach and setting tee times for the rest of your waking life. “All this is yours” and the earlier you retire, the better. However, once reality has kicked in, life has become a nightmare of boredom and purposelessness in life.
In the context of modern age, the conventional ideas about retirement are not only inappropriate, but they are counterproductive. The concept of retirement was a short sighted political machination and social manipulation, which is no longer relevant and hopelessly out of touch with our times.
In next month’s newsletter we will look at a fresh new approach to retirement and the implications thereof.
Adapted from an article written by MARY-LOU WEISMAN