The evolution of retirement

If I were to go back to school, I think I'd study retirement. That probably sounds boring to some of you, but I find the subject fascinating. No joke: My bedtime reading lately consists of books like A History of Retirement by Wiliam Graebner.

You see, retirement is a relatively recent concept. It's only really possible in wealthy nations with long lifespans. In 1880, over 75% of American men older than 64 remained in the workforce. They wanted to work. Work was evidence of vitality and productivity. It gave people purpose. Plus, most folks needed the money.

One hundred years ago, retirement was considered undesirable, something to be avoided. A 24 January 1903 article in the Saturday Review summed up the prevailing attitude: “Men shrink from voluntarily committing themselves to an act which simulates the forced inactivity of death.”

In time, “mandatory retirement” became a huge social problem. Unemployment was high. Older people were clinging to jobs that younger folks wanted — and could do better. The question became: “What shall we do with our old?” In fact, that's the title of a 1911 film about this pressing issue.

This fourteen-minute silent short from D.W. Griffith, the “father of film”, is melodramatic and heavy-handed by modern standards. (And s-l-o-w.) But it demonstrates just how prominent this debate was in American society.

In time, our perception of retirement changed. With the combination of rising wages, private pensions, and government assistance programs (such as Social Security), the stigma associated with retirement faded. In fact, retirement came to be viewed as desirable.

Consider these numbers from The Evolution of Retirement by Dora L. Costa:

  • As I mentioned earlier, over 75% of men over 64 remained in the workforce in 1880.
  • By 1900, that number had dropped to about 65%.
  • By 1950, just 47% of men over 64 continued to work.
  • By 1998, fewer than 20% of men over 64 were in the labor force.

In the 1980s, the mandatory retirement policies that had been adopted as official law and/or unofficial policy began to be deemed discriminatory and were abolished. (I'm brushing over the link in that last sentence, but if this subject interests you, you should follow it.)

Today, things are complicated. You'd think that with the abolition of mandatory retirement policies, more older people would choose to continue working. To some extent, they have. But not as many as I would expect. (In 2010, 22% of men over 64 chose to work.) Some of these people work because they have to, of course, because they need the money in order to survive. Some work because they want to.

But I believe that after a century of societal pressure to consider retirement both a social and personal positive, most of us view retirement as a goal we want to achieve, not something we want to avoid. In fact, I believe the idealization of retirement is the driving force behind today's very popular FI/RE movement. (FI/RE stands for “financial independence/retire early”, in case you're out of the loop.)

In 1917, nobody wanted to retire. People wanted to work as long as they could. Today, many young people — and hey, I'm one of them — are eager to retire as soon as possible!

What does retirement mean to you? Is it a desirable thing? Something to be avoided? How do your attitudes toward retirement differ from those of your parents and, especially, your grandparents?

[See also: The history of the early retirement movement at Early Retirement Dude]
More about...Retirement

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