The History of Retirement

In an earlier post, I discussed the failure of most workers in the US to save for retirement, with the result that many will continue working longer than the previous generation of older adults.  To put this change regarding the timing of retirement in perspective, this post will discuss the history of retirement and of the associated notion that the last decades of one’s life should be devoted to leisure.

Before the mid-nineteenth century, everyone continued to work as long as they were able.  However, as described in a multi-page post at the website The Next Hill, lifelong employment became problematic when the economies of Western nations changed from agrarian to industrial in the late 1800s. The issue was that elderly workers weren’t fast or strong enough to keep the machines running at maximum efficiency.  Societal attitudes towards the elderly became more negative, and factory owners increasingly relied on mandatory retirement rules to rid themselves of older workers.  The elderly seldom wanted to leave the workplace, but most had little choice.  Retirement wasn’t sought after; it was imposed.

The massive unemployment of the Great Depression accelerated the progression of negative attitudes toward older workers.  Such workers were viewed as filling slots that otherwise could go to the young and able-bodied.  The federal government offered Social Security as an inducement to get these workers to retire.  Older workers were needed again during World War II, but, following its conclusion, the pressure was again on such workers to step aside and make way for the young.  To this end, government, labor, and business worked to reframe retirement.  It was presented not as a punishment for getting old, but as a reward for years of faithful service.  Gradually, older workers developed more favorable attitudes toward retirement, eventually culminating in the view that retirement constituted “the Golden Years,” a time of leisure.  Business sweetened the financial inducements for retirement; by 1975, over 55% of private sector employees had private pension plans available to them. The prospect was of ever-earlier retirement and, with longer lifespans, decades of leisure after exiting the workforce.

It hasn’t worked out that way, at least in part because businesses, seeking to grow ever more efficient and burdened with pension obligations, decided to cut or eliminate pensions.  Thus, the average age of retirement, which decreased over the course of many decades, is now increasing.  The accompanying chart comes from a Gallup poll asking retired Americans the age at which they retired.  The average age reported went from 57 in 1991 to 61 in 2013.  Since the question was asked of all retirees, including those who retired decades ago, it’s reasonable to suspect that the average age at which workers are currently retiring is even higher.  When nonretired workers are asked when they expect to retire, 37% say they don’t plan to do so until after age 65.  Ten years ago, only 22% expected to delay retirement that long; in 1995, only 14% expected to do so.

gallup--retirement age

The question that remains is, once having accepted the idea that the last decades of life should be a time of diminished responsibility and of leisure, will workers continue to long for that increasingly elusive ideal?  Will they instead make a virtue of necessity and return to the view that predated the leisure ideal, namely that it’s desirable to work as long as possible?  Or will middle-aged workers find some way to combine these views?  I will post some thoughts on the leisure ideal on my other blog,Life Assays.

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About bobritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to my parents' home and provide them with assistance. I maintain part-time therapy practices in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Fayetteville, North Carolina. I currently worship at Square Inch Community Church in Grand Rapids. I can be reached at bobritzema@hotmail.com.
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