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.

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