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.