Recently in my Facebook page, the matter of retirement came up. I will admit as far as I’m concerned it’s ALWAYS been a moot point.
I love the way they assure us there will be social security money for my generation when – since the seventies – we’ve known there wouldn’t be almost all our lives. And the economy being what it is and our investments having shrunk like an ice-cube in summer, well! It’s not like it ever appeared a likely thing. Sure, I might find myself around sixty five or so with the wherewithal to retire. I also might find myself with the capacity to fly if aliens invaded the Earth and…
But it goes deeper than that. The money thing is why I never gave it much thought, or if I did it was to shrug and go “Whatever.”
I realized retirement didn’t apply to me anyway when – a few years ago – daydreaming about winning the lottery I found myself thinking “And then I’d have SO MUCH time to write.”
My dears, when you reach that point, that all you can think of to do with money is to sweep out of your way all the dross of the workaday world – shopping, cooking, cleaning – so you can work more, you might as well face it: you’re not retirement material.
And then I started wondering if I was really that different from the average person of my age and education. The people who chimed in on the conference all said something like “the only thing I would want to do in my retirement is what I do now!”
There are exceptions. I know a lot of you intend to retire or are already retired: those of you who served in the military; those who have professions – like truck driving – that require a certain amount of visual acuity, strength and coordination, and others.
But the way I’m looking at it is historically, and I think we might be entering the early days of the demise of retirement as a concept. Bear with me.
Retirement as an idea is actually quite young, a product of the late industrial revolution (in the early industrial revolution there really wasn’t time to retire, as the technology itself killed you off early – though there are indications they still lived longer than field hands.) The jobs the industrial revolution produced and which created a middle class out of thin air, were not exactly things to sing about. They produced a lot of wealth, mind, but no one could get particularly excited about spending his life tending some machine or other. So this idea formed that when you were too old to tend the machines, you’d get paid for two or five or ten years to actually do what you wanted to do.
I think the heyday of this concept was around the fifties, when retired people would finally drive around and see the country.
It was affordable, of course, because people didn’t live that long, the next generation was larger and could support them in style and… all things that don’t apply. Let us not worry our heads about that, shall we?
Instead, let’s look at how things were before the industrial revolution – beyond the fact that lives were a lot shorter – a grandmother might do less and less of the work and take on a more supervisory capacity as daughter or daughter in law took over the actual house work. A grandfather might sit at home repairing the tools used in the fields, or go out with the younger guys to tell them “this is where you dig.” Or “In my grandfather’s time, when there was a drought like this, we did–”
Mind, this is semi idyllic and it depends on who you believe. Some authors say most of the Middle Ages were like that. Others say there were vast numbers of orphan children, some as young as five, roaming the countryside, because most people died around thirty.
Do I know who’s right? I suspect both are, depending on WHEN in the 1000 year span of the Middle ages – and where too. On the other hand, I have an instinctive disbelief in happy pastoralists, having grown up in a village and all.
Let’s leave that aside and admit that no one – no one – expected to have five years of weekends – let alone twenty – at the end of life. For one, the society didn’t have that kind of wealth.
Well, to an extent we’re starting to transition out of the industrial age. It’s just the very beginning, but a lot of us have jobs that require us to use our mind – or even our hands – in creative ways. There are intimations and whispers of robots taking over those sectors where we need mass production (there will always be sectors like that) and having the machines supervised by one man, remotely, a work that will be more mental than not.
(As a side note, let me point out those who look at that and say “but what about the people not suited to mind work?” – stop wringing your hands. What if they stuck that way? – Stop underestimating people whose minds don’t work like yours. Given time and space and a wealthy enough society, yeah, you’ll find people who do absolutely nothing – the listless you’ll always have with you – but there will also be a lot of other things people discover to do, up to and including some old skills like cabinet making. If you think there’s no difference between mass produced and the work of a master carpenter, you haven’t grown up in the workshop of the latter. (I did.) And if you think lack of verbal or abstract thought ability means people will find nothing to do in the new economy, you’re by far underestimating humans.)
And when you’re looking at that, and at work getting unpegged from a central location, too, and becoming something that’s more than likely done out of the home at least part of the time – what does retirement mean?
Besides, we’re all living longer. I come from a long lived line anyway. My grandmother and great grandmother lived into their late eighties with little better than medieval health care. So I’m looking at at least twenty five years after sixty five and likely more. You know, a month off now and then to laze about and read would be great, but … twenty five years? What would I do about the ideas that came crowding?
I doubt Dan will ever retire, either. Our ideal would be to reach a state where he’s working from home, so we can rearrange our hours better and he has time to write, but that’s about it. I mean, there are programs he’d like to try writing, there are books to work on, but retire? What would he do with himself?
The truth is for most of my generation and those a little older than I – now hitting their early sixties – the idea of retirement is a confusing concept. It’s not even “with what” or “how?” but “Why?”
Even those who are forced to retire or have the type of profession that comes with a full retirement pension are more likely to just take on another job, instead of retiring. A lot of the previous generation is already doing this. (Both my parents started new careers around 45, though I doubt my mother thought of it that way. My dad finally retired at 80, not because he couldn’t do the job, but because he was required to drive an hour each way. For all I know mom is still working – her work being managing the family’s finances.)
There are two factors in this: we’re living very long PRODUCTIVE lives. Remember when people got a watch and a letter of recognition at 25 years. Suppose you do that. You started working at 25, at 50 you get your gold watch… and you’re easily looking at another 25, 35 years (depending on the stock you come from) of productive life. Retirement? Why squander all that time?
The other factor is that a lot of us – granted not most, not all of us – don’t live working lives of quiet desperation. I could wish for the publishing establishment to get its head out of its nether regions. I could. I could wish for publishers to get a clue now and then. I could wish publicists at houses actually publicized. BUT – but – I could not wish to enjoy writing more than I already do. Or to live without doing it.
I would bet most of us in skilled professions are the same.
This doesn’t mean we don’t need money “for a rainy day.” Heaven knows there will be those and sometimes it will pour. But saving for a five, ten or twenty five year vacation is a strange endeavor.
It hit me that this is just one of the transformations underway. Like ebooks, like computer tech, like the changes to come to education and medicine and law (even as our legislative critters are trying to pull all of them backwards into the industrial age. Never mind. The future will defeat them) the future will be different in ways most of us can’t even think through.
We live in interesting times – but it is not all bad.