A (Very) Brief History of Retirement

Posted on January 1, 2011


Did you know there were no “retirees” before the nineteenth century? As Mary-Lou Weisman entertainingly noted, in the beginning, there was no retirement.

“There were no old people in the Stone Age.” By the age of 20, everyone was usually dead.

“Any early man who lived long enough to develop crow’s-feet was either worshiped or eaten as a sign of respect,” she noted with tongue in cheek.
Moving to Biblical times, when some people made it into old age, such as Methuselah who lived to 969, retirement still had not been invented.

It was customary to carry on until you dropped, regardless of your age group — no shuffleboard, no RV, no pension.

When a patriarch could no longer farm, herd cattle or pitch a tent, he opted for more specialized, less labor-intensive work, like prophesying and handing down commandments. Or he moved in with his kids.

As the “boomer” generation moves into “retirement” age, it is well to review the historical antecedents. My grandfather, a physician by trade in South Carolina (University of Virginia Medical School, 1880s) didn’t retire. He just worked until he couldn’t any more.

And my wife Louise’s grandmother, Edna Carlton, ranched in south central Florida until she was 99, riding out to work the ranch with her cowboys until one day she was told she had cancer. She gave up riding and working and she then died. She didn’t retire.

The same thing happened to Paul “Bear” Bryant back in 1983. He lost the will to live when he quit coaching and he died soon thereafter. Joe Paterno of Penn State, on the other hand, seems more traditional in his concept of what one does in old age. Nuts to retirement. I’m coaching until I die.

What happened between the age of Methuselah and the age of Bryant?

Basically the Industrial Revolution is the culprit or the cause, for better or worse (like marriage vows), of retirement as we know it today.
When people came off the farms to work in the new economic creatures of the times –sausage factories, railroads, Henry Ford’s horseless carriage assembly lines—and gathered in the cities, the old family connections tended to dissolve due to distance and profession.

The American Express Company decided as long ago as 1875 to step into the traditional role of family as caretaker of the aging and aged, and set up a pension plan. Very modern.

Others followed suit, and then in 1936 Big Brother put his nose under the tent of retirement and decided to take a role as well. Social Security was born.

While retirement was only invented in the last century, it has become a “right,” just like the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Presumably retirement falls under the latter category.

As people live longer, and outlive a job in anything other than agriculture, they are “moved along” to make room for the younger generation. More retirees spill over into the system. But, today, under the siege of an economic depression, retirement benefits are disappearing like rats on a sinking ship. Every man (or rat) for himself!

In the past, one fell into the lap of family, whether children, grandchildren, cousins, uncles, nephews, or other relatives. The old lived with the new in peace, if not always tranquility between the generations.

But the industrial revolution, and the other “revolutions” in service industries, technology, medicine, and education for example, not only drew people off the farms and away from families, but produced more income. This in turn was then directed toward retirement strategies, largely premised on putting away money, preferably invested wisely so it will grow, to pay for your days after you quit work and “retired.”

This made separation within families even more pronounced, especially as children moved away to find jobs, or education.

Everyone became a nucleus, bouncing around alone in the universe. Modern retirement. It is almost existential in nature, often sad and lonely, and in a depressed economy, filled with anxiety and cares.

And modern marriage, or the sorry state of the institution, complicates “retirement” even more. Scores of sets of parents and grandparents for children married, divorced, remarried, divorced, remarried make for a bewildering array of disassociated people who would not be very happy or compatible on the farm, even if we were still a farming people.

This is not a happy scenario. But, happily, my wife and I have children and we have told them we won’t be a worry to them.

Of course, one child lives in Michigan, another in Oregon, and we in Alabama. We just haven’t worked out those logistical arrangements yet, although the RV will help.

All we need really is a water hookup, a thirty amp wire (although we would prefer a fifty amp so we can run the microwave, air conditioner and televisions at the same time), and sewage outlet since the black water fills the tanks rather rapidly. The RV doesn’t take much space, and the grandchildren are free to come aboard anytime and play.

If we need anything, we’ll have the children close by.

A very traditional family in a non-traditional world.

We haven’t figured out yet how to integrate the other sets of grandparents from our very “blended” family.

I’ll have to check our pension plans to see how the planners have put this all together for us.

Published as The New Age of Retirement in The Tuscaloosa News Sept. 12, 2010

Posted in: History