This unbearably long article, broken into five parts, tries to put our notions of retirement in an historical perspective. Links to the other parts are at the bottom of the page.

Nearly everyone in America over the age of 40 obsesses about retirement. It is the epilogue of the American Dream. A secure retirement is the end mark of a life well lead, even something of a status symbol. (For the middle-class at least. Retirement has never been a status symbol for poor people, and truly rich people never retire. Look at Warren Buffet. He is like a thousand years old and has so much money he gives most of it away. He isn’t retiring. Of course, he does probably set his own hours.)

But retirement wasn’t always the stuff of sweet daydreams. 150 years ago, almost no one thought of retiring. In fact, the idea of retirement as something we should all aspire to has only been around for about 60 years.

Retirement is a new idea, and for most of its history, it wasn’t popular with older people. Most of our great-grandparents probably hated the very idea of it. Apparently they had more common sense than we do. Retirement was never designed to help older people; it was designed to get rid of them.

There have been five distinct periods in the historical evolution of retirement in America:

  • Colonial Times to 1885: The Pre-industrial and Pre-retirement Era
  • 1885 to 1929: The Industrial Age Gives Rise to Mandatory Retirement
  • 1930 to 1940: The Great Depression Turns Retirement into a Duty
  • 1940 to 1975: The Post-War Era and the Selling of Retirement
  • 1975 to 2050: The Consequences Pile Up

Over the course of the next five posts, I’ll trace the evolution of retirement through each of these periods.

Colonial Times to 1885: Retirement in Pre-industrial America

In the beginning, there was birth, a very brief childhood, work, and death. In other words: no retirement.

Work was inseparable from life. If you lived, you worked. That was the American Way. In 1850, 77% of men over 65 still worked. People worked as long as they could because not working was viewed as unseemly. If you stopped working, you were probably dead or broken beyond repair.

Occupations in America in 1840

Most people in pre-industrial America worked in agriculture. On the farm, there was no retirement. If a man got too old to plow the fields, then a son or son-in-law would take over while the older farmer shifted to less demanding chores.

Off the farm, retirement was likewise rarely thought of. Most non-farm businesses were small scale operations. They usually employed only a handful of people. Employers were not large enough or wealthy enough to provide pensions to their workers, but the close personal relationships that usually existed between employee and employer made the idea of forced retirement without a pension unthinkable.

Older workers were accommodated rather than sacked. There were almost no mandatory retirement laws. Only judges in a few states were required to retire at a certain age.

If a man did grow so old that he was no longer able to be productive, he would be expected to withdraw to the support of his family or charity and church. But that decision was generally voluntary. If a man wanted to work or needed to work, his employer and community did their best to accommodate him.

Age distribution of population in America in 1840

Of course, in the early to mid-1800s, the U.S. was a young country. In 1840, over half the U.S. population were under 20. Roughly 85% was under 30. The average life expectancy was 38. Less than 4% of Americans were over 60. There just were not that many older people.

In America before the Civil War, the elderly were not viewed as negatively as they are today. Older people were valued for their knowledge, the moral guidance they offered, their hard work, and their participation in the building of the country. Even as they slowed down, they remained a respected and integral part of their families and communities. There were no senior citizen jokes in those days.

As a person grew older, his role and place in society might change, but he was not mocked or forced to the sidelines. He remained respected, even venerated. That would soon change.

After the Civil War, the signs of this change grew unmistakable. The nation shifted from a primarily rural, agrarian society to an increasingly urban one transformed by industrialization.

Urban workers, unlike farmers, did not have the support system of the family farm that enabled them to shift to less strenuous tasks as they aged. By the 1880s, manufacturing drove the American economy, and relationships among employers and young and old workers grew strained. Retirement became a tool to deal with those strains.

Next: Part 2: 1885 to 1929 — Corporate America Demands Efficiency

Note: My primary sources for this series of articles are:

W. Graebner. A History Of Retirement: The Meaning And Function Of An American Institution, 1885 to 1978, New Haven, Connecticut, USA:Yale University Press 1980. 293 pp. ISBN 0-300-03300-1

D. Costa. The Evolution of Retirement: An American Economic History, 1880-1990. Chicago, Illinois USA: University of Chicago Press, 1998. 234 pp. ISBN 978-0-226-11608-2.

The Graebner book is a great read and I highly recommend it to anyone wishing to learn more about this subject. It is 30 years old, but it is still the definitive historical account of Retirement in America. It is currently out of print, but used copies are readily available.

The Costa book is also excellent. It is an economic history and takes a more quantitative approach.

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Time To Retire The Concept Of Retirement

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It seems that the American Dream of an easy retirement has taken a beating lately. The news media is full of stories about people forced to give up their plans for retirement. (Check here, here, and here.)

A lot of people are angry. Some feel they are failures because they did not plan properly. Others feel society and their Government have let them down.

I wonder sometimes if I am the only one who feels this way, but I think our whole notion of retirement is a truly dumb idea. If it goes away, I say good riddance.

This article looks at retirement, what it means for older Americans, middle-aged workers, and our society as a whole—and why we would be better off without it.

Forget About “65”

Perhaps you are one of the millions of Americans who have come to think of their 65th birthday as something of a finish line, the end of work life and the beginning of…something else. If you are, then you have bought into a myth. Your 65th birthday is nothing more than an arbitrary line scratched across your life by someone else for reasons that have nothing to do with you or your well-being.

Historically, retirement has been nothing more than a tool for getting older people out of the way. It is bad for older people, middle-aged workers, and society as a whole. It is time to re-think the whole notion.

Don’t Surrender Your Identity

Today, retirement has become part of the fabric of the American Dream. But until retirement was cynically re-packaged as a “lifestyle” in the 1950s, most older people did not expect or want to retire

Work is part of what gives our lives meaning. Throughout American history, a person’s work has been a defining part of his or her identity:

I am a farmer.

I am a doctor.

I am a carpenter.

I am a teacher.

Retirement takes that away from you. It changes who you are.

It is nothing more than a deceptively packaged form of age discrimination that propagates the notion that older people should withdraw from productive roles in society. It fosters the perception that older people are a burden to society.

This negative perception trickles down to 55, 50, and even 40 year-olds. You may be years from retirement, but the prospect of your retirement still makes it harder for you to a find job.

When you go on a job interview, your prospective employer is probably thinking:

“He’ll just be treading water until he can retire.”

“Why invest in training her? She’ll be gone in a few years.”

“He’s too old to be interested in a career. How will I motivate him?”

This discrimination is so pervasive that many middle-aged people who want to continue working are actually forced to take early retirement because they cannot find decent work.

Retirement is a bad idea for our society too, which is ironic, since it was the economic engine of our society that created it and still demands it. (Corporate America has always felt that older workers are inefficient and uses retirement to get them out of the way.) The problem today is that there are more older people than our society can support.

Retirement Is a Poor Life Goal

All of us should strive to stay connected with the world as long as we possibly can. That means staying productive as long as we can.

Retirement has been packaged as a life goal, something we are supposed to be planning for all our adult lives. But it is actually a type of dismissal. It is a dumping ground. We should all refuse to be dumped.

If our society cannot help us be productive, it is time to change our society. Retirement wastes precious human resources and truncates lives for no reason beyond a lack of imagination and a lazy acceptance of nonsensical stereotypes about older people.

Retirement should be a last resort, not a goal. No one should retire except out of necessity, and we should all hope that necessity never comes.

Don’t Go Quietly

We can fight back and we should, for ourselves, our society, and our future

Older workers can be just as productive as young workers. I will gladly go up against most 20-somethings at any task that doesn’t involve a video game remote. I may not be able to keep up with them in a marathon or stay out partying until 3:00 AM, but I like my odds at out-thinking most of them. I like yours too.

The history of retirement makes for fascinating study. Over the next week or so, I will be posting a five part series of articles summarizing that history.

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If you are over 50 and looking for a new job, you have probably experienced age discrimination. In some fields, you’ll even experience it at 40.

Personally, I’m not sure it’s something to get all worked up about. Age discrimination is part of the landscape of American life. It’s something we just have to live with it, like winter or rain. It may feel good to bitch and moan about it, but it’s usually a waste of energy and emotion. Better to just accept it and figure out how to overcome it.

But sometimes it gets so blatant, you can’t let it pass. When that happens, you may consider filing a lawsuit and going to court. If you do, recognize that it will be a long uphill climb. The law is not really on your side.

Yes, it is against the law to discriminate based on age. But everyone knows it happens all the time, and in courts the odds are heavily stacked in favor of the employer.

Age discrimination laws are mostly just political theater designed to impress older voters. They are so toothless that only idiot employers are ever subject to them. Okay, every so often, there will be a successful age discrimination lawsuit or a favorable out of court settlement. But given the pervasiveness of age discrimination in the workplace, it would take thousands of successful cases to even begin to make a dent.

A few weak laws can not change an entrenched cultural bias like age discrimination. It is a social issue more than a legal issue. You can’t eliminate racism just by making it illegal, and the same holds true for ageism. Most employers deal with age discrimination laws by instructing managers and supervisors on what not to say to employees, not by instructing them not to discriminate.

But anyway, the point of this rant is an excellent post by Ellen Simon, an employee rights lawyer based in Ohio and Arizona. The post discusses a recent Eight Circuit Court of Appeals opinion about the interpretation of evidence in an age discrimination case.

The implications of the ruling are a little technical, but Ms. Simon does a great job briefly explaining them. It is must reading for anyone contemplating a lawsuit over age discrimination.

I still suspect that your best course of action when faced with age discrimination is to just move on. But please read the article. It’s clear, concise, and informative. Nothing like what you would expect from a lawyer. (No, wait. That’s another unfair cultural bias. My apologies to lawyers everywhere.)

(Note: I do not know Ms Simon, and I have never worked with her firm.)

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Does health insurance chain you to your job?

If you are like most people in the United States, you have health insurance through your employer. If you strike out on your own and start your own business, that employer-health insurance will vanish. Of course, that’s not a problem if your spouse’s employer offers a good plan. If not, maybe you should rethink that business startup idea.

If you are a 50 year old male in excellent health (meaning you had no significant health care expenses in the last three years) and you need to purchase individual health insurance, you will have to spend approximately $750 a month to get good coverage without a lot of gaps. If you are married with children that cost could jump as high as $1500 a month.

That’s a big chunk of change for your new venture to cover. And that assumes you will even be able to get insurance. In many states, access to individual health insurance coverage is limited.  If you or anyone in your family has a pre-existing condition, it is virtually non-existent.

Competing for a job with someone younger? You will cost an employer more.

Even if your career change plans do not include striking out on your own, the current US health insurance environment will hurt your chances of landing a new job. It is not just about the paycheck. Even at the exact same rate of pay, you will cost your prospective employer more than a younger worker.

Most large employers self-insure their health benefits. This means that the employer pays health insurance claims and administrative costs directly out of its own pockets. Since everyone knows older workers have higher medical bills, that means you have one strike against you before you even step to the plate.

It is often the same for smaller businesses. In a few states, small group health insurance premiums are “community rated”, which means that insurers may not base rates on the health status of the employees. But in most states, insurers may factor in health status and other factors when determining an employer’s premium rates. This means that a company’s premiums are directly tied to the cost of the health insurance claims filed by its employees. Hire an older worker or someone with a pre-existing condition, and costs go up.

An employer who hires older workers is going to pay more to provide health insurance to it’s employees than an employer who hires younger workers.

Of course, you may be thinking that this is not something you need to worry about because it is it illegal to discriminate against prospective employees based on age. Right. I’ll assume you also think you have a fairy-godmother.

Who would design such an unfair system?

Well, the answer is no one would, and no one did. The US health insurance system sort of just happened. It’s not something anyone ever thought was a good idea. Let’s fix it. Otherwise, you might be better off waiting until you are 65 to start on your new career. At least then neither you or your prospective employer will need to worry about where your health insurance will come from.

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Invest For The Long Term

(Please note: this is not about the stock market.)

First, Examine Your Assumptions

Economists have long said that one of the chronic problems facing the U. S. economy is Wall Street’s insane focus on short term performance. U. S. investors give too much weight to how a company performed in the last quarter and fail to take a long view.

Another common investor mistake is assuming that past performance is a reliable indicator of future performance. Just because a company did well (or poorly) in the recent past, that does not mean the trend will continue. Think Sears, Woolworths, Enron, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, Circuit City, Wickes, Chrysler, GM. Need I go on?

So what is an investor to do? Well, the very best investors say “Examine the company’s position today and then look at how it plans to covert that position into a profitable future.”

We all have to do exactly the same thing whenever we get ready to climb The Next Hill.

If you are facing a crisis that has changed the direction of your life, look at your assumptions about your current position in life. A lot of those assumptions are probably wrong.

Why? Because many of our assumptions about life are shaped by what other people do and say and think. And most other people, like most investors, are pretty dumb.

You Are Not As Far Down The Road As You Think

The first assumption you need to examine concerns where you are on the timeline of your life. If you are 40, or 50 or 60 or beyond, you almost certainly think you are further down the road than you actually are.

When my brothers and sisters and I were young, my Dad liked to make an extra big deal about our fifth birthdays. “This is a really important day,” he would joke. “Because you know you aren’t really a human being until you turn five.”

When you are four years old, your father can convince you of anything. But I realize now that Dad was very wrong. He was off by at least 15 years.

When you are taking stock of your life, it’s important to recognize that anything you did before you turn twenty simply doesn’t count. People under twenty aren’t even really people yet. I mean have you listened to their music? They think Kanye West is someone to emulate!

So, recognize that you only really came into existence a a human being some time around your twentieth birthday.

Next, assume that you are going to live to be at least 90 years old. You probably will if you take care of yourself. And even if you don’t, it doesn’t matter. We are just trying to get a proper perspective here. (NW Mutual Life has a great (and goofy) life expectancy calculator if you are interested in seeing how far you are likely to get.)

Think Long Term

Anyway, let’s just say you accept my assumptions. Now look at some important choice you made in your life. Your career for instance.

Some time around your 20th birthday, shortly after you came into existence as an actual person, you chose a career. Now you are 50 and maybe that choice isn’t looking so hot. But you feel like it’s too late to start over.

Wrong. Look at our timeline. Remember, it starts when you are 20. You have only been an adult human being for 30 years. Since you are going to live to be 90, you still have 40 years ahead of you. Why can’t you start over? You’ve actually got more time left for a second career than you’ve invested in your first. And now you are actually old enough to maybe make intelligent decisions!

Don’t Obsess Over Past Performance

Okay, let’s face it: keeping your past in perspective is difficult. Your past does matter. If you are 50 (or 40 or 60) and starting over, a lot of people are likely to look at you as a tired old brand with no future. Some people won’t want to have anything to do with you. Don’t worry about it. The world is full of stupid. It makes everything twice as hard as it should be, but you can’t change it. Just like you can’t change your past.

Don’t carry the past on your back as you move into the future. Leave the past where it belongs: in the past. Amazing how much it will lighten the load.

Just invest in your future and start your climb up The Next Hill.

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Ever thought about starting your own business? The Pew Research Center has published an interesting report summarizing some of their recent research on work motivation and economic security among the self-employed.

Self-employed people, it seems, tend to be much happier with their work, but also less financially secure. Self-employed status by age

But one chart was particularly striking. According to data from the U.S. Census, older workers are much more likely to be self-employed than younger workers.

This factoid almost certainly does not say quite as much as it seems to, but it does beg for further investigation. I believe I will dig a little deeper into this. More later.

Check out the full Pew study: Job Satisfaction Highest Among the Self-Employed

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God is in the Details

Why Is This Taking So Long?

I would like to make a statement:

Anyone who tells you that you can get yourself a website in a couple of hours is trying to sell you something.

I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way. My son is in that line of work. It really is possible to get online in a couple of hours, and this is a fine company to help you do it.

I’m just saying that when someone tells you that you can have a website in a couple hours, they are not telling you the whole story. Here is my side of the story.

Nothing Is As Easy As It Could Be.

You see, I didn’t want a website built on a template. I wanted to make it my website. That takes a whole lot longer than a couple hours.

Where do we begin? Okay. What’s your platform going to be? WordPress? Great. It’s free and easy (sort of) and powerful. And you don’t need to know any HTML or CSS to get up and running. You can even customize it with different themes.

Next question: are you going to use WordPress.com or self-host? One is free, one is not. But if you use the free option, you are limited to certain themes, which means customization is maybe a little restricted. And there will be ads on the site, and you don’t choose them.

Okay. Let’s go with self-hosted. Does that mean I need a server? Well, not exactly. Good, because I don’t really even know what a server is. I’ll use a shared hosting service. Not very expensive. Picking a hosting service is a chore, mainly because there are so many of them. But I finally found a great one.

The first thing they want to know is my domain name. Oh, right…

So, now I’ve got a name. Use FTP to load WordPress, the service tells me. And what exactly is FTP?

Well, that took a while. But now it’s ready to go, right? Just fill in a few fields on the WordPress Admin Panels. Wait, what’s this? My version of WordPress is out of date. But I just downloaded it yesterday!

The update was surprisingly easy. My site is ready! Two days later and my domain name actually points to it. I’m on the internet! But my home page still says “Just Another WordPress Blog.” That is not what I had in mind.

So I guess I need a “theme”. This is how you customize WordPress.  There are free themes and themes you pay for. After careful consideration and research, I pick a theme called Thesis. (You can get it here.)

The problem is that even the themes can be customized. What widgets and plug-ins do I want to use? What’s the difference between a widget and a plug-in? And what is this SEO stuff everyone is blabbering about?

So I add widgets and plug-ins, and something for SEO, even though I don’t really know what it is. But the site still doesn’t really look the way I want it to. Let’s see if I can put in my own header image and change the color of those tabs, and move them a little to the left, and line up the text in that sidebar widget with the edge of the header image. Uh-oh. Now I’ve broken it. My website is a total mess.

An hour or two later and I get things in some semblance of order again. This is when I realize I need a test server to let me preview changes before I load them to my live site. But how do I do that? Five days ago, I had no idea what a test server even was. Actually, I still don’t know.

Let me introduce you to WAMP [Wordpress/Apache/MySQL/PHP]. (This is where you start to cry.)

Fortunately, Help Is Just A Click Away.

It’s true what they say: On the web help is everywhere. There are apparently hundreds, maybe thousands of people who spend part of their evenings answering WordPress questions from complete strangers. Every question you could ever ask has already been asked and answered. The WordPress people keep them all online like forever. If you don’t believe me, look here. The problem is finding your question.

But with the help of those wonderful WordPress people, and several days worth of effort, I finally get my test server working. Don’t laugh. This is an accomplishment.

Slowly, but surely, I get the site close to what I want. It’s been a struggle. For example, I spend an entire evening figuring out how to move one little button from the sidebar to the header. Another two nights trying to comprehend the difference between margins and paddings. (You don’t want to know.) But I’m getting there.

Then disaster strikes. I’ve been testing in the Firefox browser. One day I accidently load the site in Internet Explorer. It looks entirely different. This is insane!

Sometimes The Work Is Its Own Reward.

A few days later and I get things looking close to the same on Firefox and Internet Explorer. I am almost happy with the result. I am feeling pretty proud of myself. I’ve learned something entirely new. I decide what I want, and with a considerable amount of digging around in this alphabet muck of HTML/CSS/PHP/FTP/MySQL/SEQ and whatever, I can usually make it so. It’s been like learning Mandarin Chinese, and honestly, I’m just barely competent in a skill set I didn’t really want to acquire in the first place. But still, this is so cool. I’m on my way!

Just a little bit longer and I’ll have it ready. I’m still a little embarrassed by the site. It’s very bland looking. I’ve got all these fidgets or widgets or whatever that I want to add to make things flashier. There is so much stuff you can do with the web. Even children are building these truly amazing websites. And let’s face it: what I’ve got right now is not much more than a paper journal pasted up on a computer screen. It’s silly how much time I’ve spent getting this far. I’ve got to elevate my game.

And then it hits me. Not only is my site not much more than a paper journal, it’s an empty paper journal.

I’ve Learned A New Skill Set, But I’m Still Pretty Stupid.

Don’t get me wrong. Learning this web site stuff is great. It’s a new world out there, and I love it. Even if I am still just taking baby steps. But what I’ve really been doing all these many weeks is hiding behind my quest to build a decent home page.

Truth be told, I have been afraid to launch the site. I didn’t feel like I was ready. But instead of facing up to that, I decided to tinker with the layout instead. A template would have been fine. But it was less frightening to get bogged down in the details of web design than to actually get to work on the things I want to say and do. That will be much tougher, and I’ll be putting a lot more on the line.

Take The First Step. The Rest Will Follow.

This tendency to set inappropriate priorities is something I’ve struggled with my whole life. If I’m going to start over, this is where I have to begin. Perfection is impossible. Expertise takes a long time. But I’ve still got the time. And now I’ve got my second post up.

Here’s hoping the posts get better. That’s what I’ll be focusing on from now on. The rest will follow. Ancora Imparo. God may be in the details, but so is the Devil.

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