Wednesday, May 23, 2012


"The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams."
-Eleanor Roosevelt

I have to admit something that is going to make me seem very odd in modern culture. Well; odder.

I think the concept of retirement is strange. The idea that you get to a certain point in your life where you just stop working and relax until you die strikes me as bizarre. It is certainly a modern invention, when we've gotten so comfortable and civilized that people can stop working at some point and just enjoy a life of leisure.

In a way it says something good about western civilization that an ordinary person can work hard and save up enough to be able to just stop working at some point (in theory). That says wonders about the economy and the fiscal system people developed over the years. And modern conveniences such as running water, electricity, automobiles and so on mean that you don't have to labor all day just to maintain your life.

But there is a presumption in our culture that everyone must be able to retire comfortably or something is wrong and that just makes no sense to me. The New York Times recently had an article by Floyd Norris which lamented that more people are working past retirement than ever before:
Labor Department figures indicate that the percentage of workers over the traditional retirement age of 65 is at a record high. But, the figures show, job totals fell sharply for men under 55 during the recession and have only started to recover, while the proportion of women ages 25 to 54 with jobs also slid and is close to the lowest level of the last two decades.

“The fact of the matter is that this aging-but-not-yet-aged segment of the baby boomer class can’t afford to retire,” said David A. Rosenberg, the chief economist of Gluskin Sheff, a Canadian firm, noting that overall household net worth was 15 percent lower than at the prerecession peak.
When I was first getting into the work force, I heard a round number that suggested you'd need about a million dollars set aside to comfortably retire by the time I was 65. That seemed excessive to me at the time, but one million in 1983 is worth about $460,000 today according to an inflation calculator.

So by the time I'm retirement age in the 2030s, a million 1983 dollars might not be worth much and it could be a pretty reasonable sum. I've seen more than a few people have to go back to work when they retired because that nest egg didn't last like they expected - and possibly because they didn't cut back at all on their expenses (or increased them).

I do understand that as you get older you get more weary, that things which used to be inconsequential become more labor. I understand that after working 40+ years, many of them in the same job, you need a break. And I understand that everyone wants more leisure time. It just seems weird that it is presumed that everyone should eventually just stop working and live for years without contributing anything.

And particularly in our welfare society, the presumption is that you'll not work but be supported by all the other people who are working all those years. That you will then just decide to be a burden on society after a certain point. When did this become normal?

In the 1930s when Social Security was first implemented in the United States as a supplemental retirement account, the average life expectancy of men was 69.9 years old, and women 63.9. So the idea that you could get Social Security at 65 presumed that most people would never actually see it. And further, it was presumed that anyone who did get it wasn't likely to live much longer on it, on average.

Today the average life expectancy is around 80 years, and the retirement age has only gone up slightly. So instead of being something never intended for much use and not for long, Social Security has become something presumed upon for almost 20 years by nearly everyone. And folks wonder how it could go bankrupt as the largest generation in human history is heading into retirement?

Its great to see older people working, especially in the service industry. They are hard workers, smart, very good at their jobs, polite, and they seem to comprehend that they are in the service industry so they try to make your experience good so you'll come back. That's a far cry from the pimple-faced teen with 7 piercings and a tattoo on their neck staring at you from behind the cash register with vague resentment for interrupting their texting.

If you manage to become wealthy enough to be able to take time off work and live on your earnings, that's fine, I just can't figure out why it is everyone just assumes that we all should be able to do that, and why so many people seem to be working toward retirement and trying to get there as early as possible.

The purpose of human life is not leisure. We were not created to be as comfortable and happy as possible, we do not exist to serve ourselves and relax.


Eric said...

My grandfather retired (quite suddenly and without a lot of advance planning) at 50 and has now spent more years retired than he did working. Most of his 7 brothers worked in the oilfield until their bodies couldn't take it anymore, and he has outlived all but two of them.

I wouldn't necessarily call his retirement a life of leisure. He always has always had projects going on to keep him busy... but I would call it a retirement that has been pretty stress free (especially as compared to managing 30 employees in the oilfield, which is how he made his money).

I don't think I'll be able to retire that young, but I would if I could, and my goal is to be able to retire as early as possible.

It's not really about being able to sit around and do nothing, so much as it's about maintaining a standard of living while not having to be accountable to customers, vendors, employers, or debt.

Sherry said...

Hi, I've found your blog through VC.

I'm glad to see someone who shares my views on the issue of retirement.

I just find it obscene that so many want nothing but leisure when they retire (even if they retire at 50!), given how many problems there are in society and how many people are in need.

Society will just have to adjust to the idea that older people can work just fine. And employers need to discriminate a lot less too. I can see how after a certain age, if someone is working more slowly, etc., it's not fair that they receive the same money they did when producing a lot more when younger. But this doesn't mean they should be treated as if they were lepers.