Monday, March 21, 2011

Retirement Should Be Retired

I love technology. I love science and engineering and all the beautiful things they've created from maps of our genes to particle accelerators to indoor plumbing and cable tv.  When I think of the 76 billion people who have made their way through this world then consider how amazing it is to live in such a time it kind of scares me but what really scares me is how our technology and our abilities tend to outstrip our wisdom.  We haven't quite figured out how we fit into this society we've created.

I've written about the new phenomenon of adolescence but as I've watched the fury of the political standoff between unions and bankrupt state governments it's occurred to me that my logic didn't go far enough--that while the 20th century created the extended childhood of the teen years it simultaneously created the other complimentary freak of nature: retirement.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that there is very little difference between adolescence and retirement.  Both are sociological oddities driven by a longer life expectancy, creating special classifications for the population complete with expectations and privileges (and backed by legislation to enforce those same privileges). Both are characterized by a general grumpiness and both serve very little purpose other than to expose the occupants to risk of laziness and deterioration if not properly navigated.

Yes, go ahead and tell me I'm the Wicked Witch of the West, I'm really okay with that but I look around at the problems that adolescence and retirement create and I shake my head.

Walk with me for a bit. . . .

I won't go back and re-explore the problems of adolescence, Mr. Gingrich has already done that admirably, but take a look at the modern retirement craze.

Where did it come from?  
The only reason we have programs such as social security and medicare is because FDR took a gamble that people wouldn't live long enough to collect on the government's bounty.  The average life expectancy was around 62 so to set a shelf at 65 seemed a safe bet.  Your odds of living that long weren't so good but it planted the seed that there was something magical about 65 (which you can't argue with, if you'd got that far you'd beat the odds and deserved a fat party). It didn't take long for the idea to grow and suddenly corporations too looked at 65 as the time for people to be slipping out quietly and the concept of retirement was born.  You had two options: you either died at your desk (a popular choice) or you left quietly to make room for someone else who wasn't as likely to suddenly drop dead on the way to the water cooler.

But as I said, technology is leaping and bounding ahead of us and people are living 20 and 30 years beyond what they were when retirement was born.  We aren't playing the odds any more, we're being strangled by them and the ponzi scheme FDR created is coming back to haunt us the longer the population survives. Add to that the psychological issues of this archaic, man-made threshold: now we have this strange idea that come 65 everything is going to change and suddenly we'll be back to how it was when we were young (catch that allusion to adolescence? I'm hitting you over the head with it), without any problems or responsibilities. It will be better, actually, because now we'll have money from our pensions/social security/savings and lots of senior discounts at the movie theaters. And don't get me started on that whole "fixed" income preoccupation. Talk about redundancy. No one I know has unlimited resources--we ALL have fixed incomes--what we really get with retirement is a fat old sense of entitlement.

Entitlement Is a Form of Heart Disease
What on earth gives us the right, after millions of years of living and working and struggling for survival, to think that we suddenly deserve a rest? What makes us special from the generations before us that had to continue to earn their living and make themselves valuable to their fellow citizens right up until the day they died?

I think we've forgotten that first and foremost, work is not a punishment. It's a gift that allows us to find purpose and meaning for our lives and once we take that out of the equation we're not only worth less we're less happy.  If you believe in God then you'll agree that work is also a commandment. "By the sweat of thy brow" and all that--I don't recall the Bible saying anything about "By the sweat of thy brow shalt thou labor . . . unless of course thou canst collect a sweet pension and finally get to all that fishing and traveling thou hast been dying to do, because really now--you deserve it." Or "thou hast deserved it." Whatever.

Purposeful Work, Not Vacations, Are the Cure
If nothing else, the idea of retirement is selfish to the core. No one beyond childhood who is mentally and physically capable should have a period of life where they expect to live off of someone else's efforts, be it through pensions, medicare or rich relations--I wouldn't allow my children to expect to live off of me once they were capable of providing for themselves and it's just as wrong for me to expect it of them (or of my government) when I'm still alive and kicking. Where is our self-reliance when we need it most? 

If you can save up enough to be able to stop working then fine, go that route. Live long and prosper.  But I don't know that even then you'll be happy. Most people I know who have been able to earn enough money to quit working have learned the psychological and physical benefits of work which is probably why we still see Bill Gates at the helm of Microsoft.  The people I admire the most aren't the ones who are hanging out at the old fishing hole, they're the ones who have worked hard, collected wisdom and then find meaningful ways of helping others who are following behind.  Just look at how many people did their best work after the age of 65 . . . Picasso . . . Winston Churchill . . . Moses . . . Sean Connery.  Seems to me that I'd rather be the flame burning brightest at the end rather than the one that splutters out then sits around complaining about the weather and kids these days.

I'm blessed to live in a time when I can--assuming I take good care of myself--expect to live another 40 or 50 years. Not only can I expect I'll live long but, thanks to modern medicine, I can generally be free of pain and disease if my genetics are good to me.  For me to assume that the last 20 or 30 years of my life are a freebie is not only selfish and wrong but a waste--the fewer years I have left, the more precious they are.  What I do with them is more important than ever.


Valerie at Home said...

Exactly! The whole concept of retirement isn't logical or practical and it certainly isn't in anyone's best interest.

CarrieM said...

I agree that the whole concept of retirement needs to be reexamined. However, I think it is irresponsible to call Social Security a 'ponzi scheme' when it was created to alleviate a terrible problem of severe poverty among the elderly (which it has succeeded at reducing greatly). Social Security was not meant to encourage people to do nothing for 30 years, but rather to provide a saftey net for the very old.

J at said...

I agree with CarrieM. I am thankful that my 88 year old Grandmother, with arthritis that makes it difficult for her to stand for long periods of time, whose memory is better than that of most 88 year olds, doesn't have to try to find or keep a job in this era of layoffs. She worked until she couldn't any more. Not until a magic number. Actually, I don't know anyone who has retired at age 65 and plopped down, hoping to 'make it on the dole', as it were. My other Grandma worked until she was 83, and only retired then because she was physically incapable of doing the job any longer. She saved her money, lived quite frugally, but now requires a lot of care, is in a wheelchair, living in the Alzheimer wing of a 'retirement home'. If it weren't for medicare and social security, I don't know how long her savings would last. She certainly didn't expect to live until 94 (she'll be 95 in September).

I have no expectation nor real desire to retire at 65. I hope I am healthy enough to work beyond that age. My Grandmothers both worked well beyond that age, but my mother's health did not allow her to. She 'retired' (read, was laid off because funding for the alcohol abuse prevention program she worked for was discontinued) at 64, began collecting social security at 65, and died at 66.

The idea that Social Security is somehow making people lazy is completely foreign to the experience of any 'retired' person I've ever known.

page2 said...

My husband says he's never going to retire, just cut back on his hours if he can. I hope he is blessed with good health to make that possible. He gets irritable if he has too much free time on his hands.

I'm not relying on Social Security to be around when we reach that magic age.

Anonymous said...

I'm 64. On ss disability and medicare.
I worked phsically demanding jobs since "hubby" left me in 1989. I would
give anything to have a "regular" heartbeat (atrial fibrillation) and
not be short of breath. (cardiomyopathy) I am phsically unable
to work ie: volunteer...I MAKE NO APOLOGIES for the help i receive. I have no family close by who cares much. I take each day and love the time I have left...2 little pet birds keep me company, and give me something to wake up to. mm,vancouver, wa.

Raejean said...

A long time ago, a friend suggested that the biggest problem that came from Social security was that over time families relegated the responsibility of caring for aging parents to the government.

Viki said...

Wow, I guess that's one way to look at it. Perhaps it would have been better if there weren't a new deal. The folks that had difficult jobs and couldn't work after 62 or 65 for health reasons could just starve to death and that would solve the problem. @@

hotpinksky35 said...

I'm sorry. I enjoy your blog but I find it odd that you would be criticizing the concept of your retirement when you are a stay at home mom who in a post a few weeks ago dismissed the idea of getting a job after the kids grow up. Being a stay at home mom is hard. But there are women who are doing everything you do and full time paying job on top of it/. Dont you think that after 30 years you might want to take a break and rest!!! I agree we all need a purpose in life and perhaps for some people 65 is too young for retirement but I can hardly agree with your complete dismissal of the concept of retirement. Its easy to sit at home and criticize something you are not a part of..

Sheila said...

I have to admit that I also thought a lot of what hotpinksky35 said about your recent post about not knowing what to do with yourself. As someone who has never had the option of staying home with my kids, but who has always had to shuffle a demanding job and tried to be the best wife and mother I can at the same time, retirement sounds wonderful. I think what you were generally trying to say had more to do with entitlement and expecting the government to take care of you, but it was really hard to get past the general criticism of anyone wanting to retire. I would LOVE to retire, and I plan to enjoy every day of my retirement. I don't ever expect to see anything from the government to get me thee.

Kendall said...

I think those that disagree aren't quite catching the point that I received from this post. I think its more of a criticism of people who feel they have an entitlement to retire. Yes, its better that Social Security is around so that those who CAN'T work are able to stay home and take care of themselves. That's what it was created for. However, the negative by product of this is that its created generations of people who feel they are ENTITLED to have 20-30 years of living off the government or others and not having to do anything. They feel entitled to have their jobs pay for their retirement, and feel slighted if they refuse (i.e. Wisconsin). That was never the intention of Social Security. It was intended to help all those wonderful hard working people you all mentioned. Those are the ones this article isn't talking about.

Someone said that the idea that retirement is making people lazy is completely foreign to any retired person she knows. Again - I would bring up Wisconsin. This is a great example of people being outraged that the government isn't going to pay for them to not work for 20-30 years.

And - the anonymous comment - you aren't what this article is talking about. You are what Social Security was created for. Not being able to work, and needing assistance is completely different than choosing to be a lazy for selfish reasons and then expecting the government to support you.

I think most people want to retire. There is nothing inherently wrong with it, other than you shouldn't expect anyone to front your pension. If you want to retire - work hard now. Then, when you retire - don't retire from life. Still be a benefit to society until you die. I see nothing wrong with that.

Scribbit said...

I had responded to some of these comments and then it got deleted but it seems that Kendall pretty much covered what I was going to say. My point wasn't to blast social security, though I stand by ponzi scheme reference as it fits completely with the definition (check it out, it's spooky). My point was that retirement is a new, sociological phenomenon (not a biological one) created by our new approach to how we view longevity and I don't know that it's good. The idea of living so that you can one day have a permanent vacation seems wrong. Do I enjoy taking breaks? Of course, I love vacations and time off, but to have a permanent sense of retiring from society and life--as Kendall correctly put it--is not good for us. Everyone I know who has done this gets grumpier and more intolerant of others and more set in their own little world which of course isn't scientific evidence of my point but it's enough to make me rethink my own thoughts on the beauty of retiring.

There's a reason the word has "tire" at its root I suppose.

Raejean, you're exactly right. As soon as we delegated the work of taking care of others to the government suddenly we aren't responsible for them any more.

Oh, and hotpinksky35, I don't define retirement as not being employed in the official, tax-paying sense. There are plenty of ways to be "employed" outside of the traditional ways--volunteer work being a huge part. Mentoring, serving in public office, being involved in a local church, exercising and keeping fit, there are plenty of ways. I should have been more clear that it's not so much not making money that is the problem, but not being "employed" in a worthwhile, meaningful labor. Though most people need the money to survive if they're not collecting government benefits.

Kelly @ Love Well said...

I couldn't agree more, Michelle. I have no faith in Social Security, since my generation (and yours) will be the one left holding the bag. It's a great theory; not a great reality, given our governments inability to not spend money in its pocket.

And yes, retirement the way the AARP sells it doesn't make much sense. I distinctly remember a piece NBC did on Lee Iacocca after he retired from Chrysler. He talked about working with a sense of wistfulness and said retirement (defined as traveling, playing golf and laying around) was the worst thing he could imagine.

boinky said...

Yeah I live a life of leisure retired.
A lot of us retired so we could better care for our spouses. Does that count? Or is it like motherhood: unpaid labor worth nothing in the eyes of the world?

Jennifer said...

My husband plans to retire in 7 1/2 years (I will be 49 and he will be 52), but only because my husband and I saved our pennies. Social Security has nothing to do with it. Now that being said, I am not going to sit on my couch and do nothing. I will still have at least a 12 year old boy to care for, and maybe even one of my other children.

Chrissy said...

You can't discontinue a social system just because a few people take advantage of it. It was created to help people as they aged and couldn't work to support themselves any longer. In the 30's/40's that age was 65 - nowadays it's more like 75-80. But as others have said, that isn't true for every individual. That would be like getting rid of SSI for the disabled because a few people abused the system. No, we shouldn't all count on it - but what a scary country it would be if it weren't available to those among us who don't have the means/ability to supplement their income otherwise. I don't understand the argument and the tone. All programs have room for improvement - but this constant barrage of anger against fundamentally just and good social systems (and government workers - they who teach and protect!) just seems so mean to me.

The Library Lady said...

When you have worked 25-30 years in the public sector (which I have done) come back and tell me about how well paid we are and why people don't deserve a paid retirement.

Until then, you are making general assumptions about something you are not qualified to talk about.

Oh, and if you think someone who's burned out on their job at 60-65 can just up and get a new job in another field these days, you are really living in a bubble. We used to hire 16 year olds to shelve books at the library for 15 hours a week. Now we've had people with advanced degrees and 20-30 years experience in other fields applying for these jobs.

Robin Sue said...

Very nice post that has brought up many sides and emotions. Hubby and I are saving as much as we can for when we cannot physically work because there will be nothing left for us, it will be gone, or not enough to uphold the lifestyle we are accustomed. Near my parents live retired folks living in million dollar homes collecting SS. Why? They do feel entitled since they did pay in all those years and that they could budget that money much better than our fine government. Many of those rich create jobs in the area- landscaping, home improvement, home health, purchasing from local shops and restaurants, and most volunteer to help society. But the other side, the folks who cannot work due to health reasons, a little more would be helpful. Sadly this will not get solved anytime soon, so I continue to work. Thanks Michelle you made some nice points, I will pass this on to my husband who is a Financial Life Planner.

Monster Mary said...

Wow, gave me something to think about. My husband always tells me that when he retires it's my turn to work. He's military and therefore can retire after 20 years. that's a pretty young retirement even thougt we joined rather late for the average military member. My personal dreams of retirement acually require work. I want to live on my mountain in NC tendig my chickens, and bees and growing my own food. I'd also like to have my own ceramic shop. My social work degree won't be much good for all that but it's what I envision for my retirement. Still work though. :)

MMM said...

I know people get burned out at jobs, but is the answer to have all the people still working pay for your extended vacation? I'm a firm believer in the "save now, enjoy later" mentality. If I want to travel and play during my last however many years of life, I should still be the one to pay for it. Thus, I save my money now and I can do what I want then.

Stephanie said...

I agree. Tim & I often talk about this very thing! We've met so many retired RVers this year...and many of them are unhappy despite their wealth & "freedom."