On March 21, 1999, the New York Times published an article written by Mary-Lou Weisman, “The History of Retirement, From Early Man to A.A.R.P.” It’s a fascinating exploration of how we arrived where ‘senior citizens’ are today. The following is an excerpt:
“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.”
Retiring…what used to mean going to bed…suddenly meant banishment to an empty stage of life called ‘‘retirement.’’
The years since 1935 have certainly seen the continued evolution of retirement. Created out of economic concern, a new stage of life was created with all of the ‘trappings’ of equipment, entertainment, lifestyle challenges and more. The “What do we do now?” question was slowly answered by a growing leisure industry. And, since the age of retirement has been slow to advance (age 60 in 1935; age 62 today), the years spent in retirement have grown.
It’s said that “the baby boomers’ threat(en) never to stop wearing Lycra, turn gray, stop carrying around bottled water or retire.” And, today the majority of AARP members are still working.
So, what’s going on?
Although I can’t speak for all of the ‘boomers’, I for one do not aspire to be a retiree. Although Robert H. Frank, in his book Luxury Fever attributes longer hours of work, more days, more years on the job to our quest for more goods…more luxury, I find that a difficult concept to support. I know of few people celebrating the opportunity to work additional hours for the sake of ‘goods’. Instead, ‘boomers’ seem to be a generation devoted to support for their families, community, and social concerns.
Today I talked with another nonprofit executive who shared his concern about the loss of philanthropy that is anticipated as the boomers age. It has been a very giving group. And the giving isn’t restricted to dollars. The extra hours given to tasks has also been a great part of this generation. It’s also been a generation intent on building. Building education; building infrastructure; building future possibilities. None of this is easy to walk away from. Nothing in the word retirement is as enticing. It’s not going to be an easy transition.
Many of my peers are changing careers rather than step away entirely. Choosing less demanding work over no work at all. Or choosing to work at their passion versus the work of their lifetime career. Postponing their confrontation with “what do I do now?” for one I am happy to postpone at the moment. Work is energizing and challenging. A great part of my life.
I’ll keep my appointment at the salon, keep buying Dasani by the case, and fill my calendar with tasks that require my full attention. I do not aspire to retire.