The spurious historical origins of how we think about retirement

By Neil Patrick

My father retired 25 years ago. He wasn’t an especially high earner. He taught at a University, but he was offered a big financial incentive to retire early. He took the money and settled into a life of golf, gardening, tennis and socialising. A quarter of a century more or less doing what he felt like and more or less worry-free.

That sort of outcome seems a remote possibility for most of my generation.

An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll released this week found unsurprisingly that the majority of older workers are delaying their retirement plans. They also report that reaching 65 won’t necessarily mean they exit from the workforce.

Some 82% of workers aged 50 and older say it is likely they will work for pay in retirement. And 47% of them now expect to retire later than they previously thought - on average nearly three years beyond their estimate when they were 40.

At first I envied my father. All that time. Endless days to spend doing whatever he wanted. But then I thought again. As he became more and more removed from the world of work, I saw how he also became more and more disconnected from how the world was evolving. The biggest change that passed him by was the endless rise of technology and digital media.

He knows how to browse the web with his iPad, but he still cannot send an email. He finds it extremely difficult to interact with web pages to do even simple things like getting his groceries delivered.

And keeping in touch with friends and family is becoming harder too since he refuses to dial a mobile phone number because he’s paranoid about the risk of being charged more for the call than he would be on a landline.

The world is slowly but steadily becoming a more and more alien place for him. And so I’m not so sure anymore that my father’s experience was such a dream ticket after all.

In the beginning, there was no retirement. Because 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. An early man who lived long enough to turn grey was either worshiped or eaten as a sign of respect.

By 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, like prophesying and handing down commandments. Or 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.

To the annoyance of their offspring, they also 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.

Clearly aging and what to do about it was a becoming a problem.

Otto Von Bismarck
In 1883, Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck of Germany inadvertently created a solution. Marxists were threatening to take control of Europe. To help his countrymen resist this threat, 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, he 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.

It was the physician William Osler who put forward the ‘scientific’ argument that, when combined with a compelling economic rationale, would eventually make retirement seem to be acceptable. In his 1905 valedictory address at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, Osler said it was a matter of ‘fact’ that the years between 25 and 40 in a worker's career are the ''15 golden years of plenty.'' He called that span ''the anabolic or constructive period.'' Workers between ages 40 and 60 were merely uncreative and therefore tolerable. He hated to say it, because he was getting on, but after age 60 the average worker was in his view ''useless'' and should be put out to pasture.

Retirement came in very handy in the United States, where large numbers of aging factory workers were wandering around the Industrial Revolution, 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. 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.

Francis Townsend (right)
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.

So these ideas about how and when we participate in work have clear historical origins. But are these rationales still valid today, when life expectancy and health care continues to advance and the world has a whole new set of economic and social challenges at both the macro and micro levels?

Should we accept the norms that have become accepted even though they came about more or less by chance and expediency and are founded on pseudoscientific arguments from the 19th and early 20th centuries?

Personally, I am choosing to adjust my life plan to one that isn’t headed towards a shutdown when I reach 65. Assuming my health permits, I intend to work for the whole of my life.

Even if that doesn’t suit the government.

Some parts of this post have been adapted from an original article by Mary-Lou Weisman form the New York Times March 21, 1999:


  1. It looks like we are on the same boat.

    1. Yes, you, me and just about everyone I think Milosz :-(