Before the mid 1950s, there was no “retirement” as we use the term today. A 1950 poll showed most workers aspired to work for as long as possible. Quitting was for the disabled. Life did not offer “twilight years,” two decades of uninterrupted leisure courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer.
Just since 1960, the percentage of men over 65 still working has dropped by half. And the average retirement age keeps falling. It’s down to 62, which gives the average man 18 years to be retired in its current meaning. It is not unusual to see people ending their careers in their mid-fifties.
This is one of the monumental changes in the fabric of society wrought by the government that has so altered the integrity of the people.
As someone on a payroll until the age of 79, and now employed on a non-compensated basis, I came to see that I was regarded as something of a freak. Was I trying to set some sort of record? Had I failed to accumulate a large enough estate?
There seemed to be some feelings too that I was somehow un-American, and a poor reflection on a generation that is supposed to be enjoying the good life.
Observing my generation opt for leisure, I see all sorts of adaptations. One described his life in Florida as meeting the same three golfers on the first tee at the same time each day for nine holes, then lunch in the clubhouse, nine holes after lunch, shower, gin and tonic, and then back to the condo to dress for dinner. When asked if this was the routine for every day, he said, “No, I help my wife clean on Tuesday.”
This is what I’m supposed to aspire to?
Another friend, in answer, said, “I sleep as late as I can because I don’t know what to do when I get up.”
The remark heard most frequently is “I’ve been so busy since I retired, I don’t know how I ever had time for my job” or “Retirement is so wonderful, I should have retired sooner.”
At this point it might be in order to ask — “Busy doing what?”
Many of those who retire at 55, 60, 65, or 70 are some of the most experienced, knowledgeable, and capable people in the workforce. Rather than occupying positions that might be available to younger people, they could be creating and expanding job opportunities for others.
There is a sense of self-worth that comes from working to a purpose that is essential to well-being, whether the task involves major responsibility or physical exertion, as both require diligence and daily attendance.
How did we come to this slough of despondency? Like so many of our present disorders, it was the siren call of the great white father in Washington: “Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”
With Social Security, Medicare, and public pensions, the government has created a large new class of dependents who see no necessity to save or to accept responsibility for themselves, their offspring, or their parents.
As this fatally flawed scheme proceeds toward disaster, the beneficiaries are so insistent that their benefits be maintained and are such a strong political force, that few congressmen have the temerity to say publicly what everyone knows: payments cannot be sustained. Those who are working are paying benefits that will not be available to themselves.
Buddha on his deathbed admonished his followers to, above all, observe strenuousness. How strange that sounds in today’s world. Our culture denies this essential virtue to our seniors, who have become dilettantes.
As we observe able-bodied citizens hiking the malls or sampling the midnight buffets on the cruise ships, we are struck by their purposelessness, and the overwhelming boredom they manifest. There is no need to arise in the morning, or any necessity to go to bed on time. Their reason for existence has ceased. They have lost the respect of those who support them, and lost their self-respect in the process.
A story is told of one who had led a long and eventful life. When the time came to cross the deep lake, he was pleased with the skiff and the oarsman as well as his welcome and the accommodations furnished him. The surroundings were beautiful, the weather pleasant, and the food more than adequate. After a few weeks, he wanted to try his hand at gardening again, but that could not be arranged. After repeated requests to work in the dining hall or on the grounds, he cried in exasperation, “This is no better than Hell.” The reply came from above, “Where did you think you were?”
Irving Babbitt reflected on the nature of work, how it was seen in the past as a God-given calling, and indeed served to define a person. With the loss of vocation has come a loss of identification.
To remedy this loss does not require legislation or public awareness. The solution is within the grasp of everyone who has decided to continue to be productive. It often means a change in occupation. It may mean giving up benefits and accepting a lower wage, or no wage at all. But a reason for living, and a retention of identity, are surely sufficient remuneration.
Whiskey & Gunpowder
March 14, 2011