The History of Retirement, From Early Man to A.A.R.P.

Categories: Retire

Great Article I stumbled upon about the History of Retirement from the New York Times. Excerpts:


In the beginning, there was no retirement. 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. Any early man who lived long enough to develop crow’s-feet was either worshiped or eaten as a sign of respect.


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. Plus they 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. In 1882, Anthony Trollope wrote a futuristic novel, ”The Fixed Period,” in which he foresaw retiring large numbers of old men to a place where they would be encouraged to enjoy a year of contemplation, followed by a peaceful chloroforming. But this was hardly an acceptable long-term strategy.


Old people hanging on to their worldly goods also threatened the social and economic fabric of Colonial America. Celebrated Puritan zealot Cotton Mather is generally credited with stimulating the national appetite for witch trials. But few people realize that he was among the first to try to force the elderly to retire. ”Be so wise as to disappear of your own Accord,” he exhorted them. ”Be glad of dismission. . . . Be pleased with the Retirement which you are dismissed into.” Nobody listened.


In 1883, Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck of Germany had a problem. Marxists were threatening to take control of Europe. To help his countrymen resist their blandishments, 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, but 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 world-renowned physician William Osler who laid the scientific foundations that, when combined with a compelling economic rationale, would eventually make retirement acceptable. In his 1905 valedictory address at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he had been physician-in-chief, 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.” FACTORY REJECTS

Retirement came in very handy in the United States, where large numbers of aging factory workers were wandering around the Industrial Revolution, dropping things into the works, 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. It was a Darwinian sacrificial moment. 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.


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.


The opposite of work turned out to be play. The rich discovered leisure first, but by 1910 Florida became accessible to the middle class. Retirement communities, where older people did not have to see younger people working, began to appear in the 1920’s and 30’s. The number of golf courses in the United States tripled between 1921 and 1930.


The publication in 1955 of Senior Citizen magazine was the first widespread use of the euphemism that, while intending to reconfer respect, instead made a senior citizen sound like an over-decorated captain in ”The Pirates of Penzance.”

My additions to this article

  • RETIREMENT 1950’s – 2000

Seniors are able to retire on Social Security and defined benefit pension plans from working for the same company for decades or working in a government job.

  • RETIREMENT 2000 –

Fewer people today have defined benefit pension plans, either because companies have done away with them, or people don’t work for any one employer for a long time. Social Security is becoming one of the major sources of retirement income. With the growth of defined contribution retirement plans like 401(k)s and IRAs, more retirees are living on their savings.

  • RETIREMENT 2008 –

The Great Recession has put people in precarious financial conditions; many people have insufficient retirement investments, causing them to delay retiring, or planning for an earned income component to their retirement, through self employment, part- or full-time employment.