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A world without clocks

By Marilyn GardnerLiving page editor of The Christian Science Monitor / September 22, 1981

Three days before Christmas in 1937, the year social security began, an engineering student who had just worked his way through the University of Wisconsin wrote a letter to a manufacturing firm in Rockford, Ill. "I'm still interested in the position you were seeking to fill," the letter began.

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Three weeks later the applicant received a letter beginning: "Confirming our verbal offer which you accepted in Professor Watson's office yesterday, you are to be employed as an engineering assistant in our electrical laboratory beginning February 8 at a starting salary of $29 a week."

By such a casual exchange of letters the pattern of a lifetime was set.

There is no way to do justice to the work of a man's or woman's lifetime -- the 40-odd years, the 11,000-plus weekdays that follow, in the engineering student's case, in the same office. Do you flip the pages of calendars -- nearly 500 months -- to mark the passing of time as they used to in old films? Over 90,000 hours of employment!

Then one day, as briskly as it all started, there are further letters -- letters in the past rather than future tense. Letters that look back in appreciation rather than look ahead in hope. And finally the ex-engineering student, who feels in his heart nearly as young as he did at the job interview in 1937 when things began, submits to the ceremony by which things customarily end: the retirement party -- what some call the "golden handshake."

No line of demarcation cuts sharper across American life than this arbitrary boundary between those who are "active" and those who are "retired." Yet what exactly does "retirement" signify, this rite of passage so casually imposed upon a worker after four seamless decades? Is it the best thing that ever happened to him? -- the official position. Or could it be the worst? -- the secret fear of many.

Retirement is the great unexamined life-within-the-life of most Americans. The shelves of public libraries are full of books bearing mostly cheerful titles: "The Secrets of Successful Retirement," "Retire to Action," "The New Guide to Happy Retirement," "How to Make the Rest of Your Life the Best of Your Life." But despite the scope of their claims -- "The Complete Guide to Retirement," "Blueprint for Retirement" -- most of these manuals deal in dated platitudes and soon-to-be dated economic projections -- e.g., the comparative costs of living in retirement in Florida vs. Arizona.

They will tell all the latest retirement-party honored guests everywhere that 45 percent of retirees live in seven states (California, New York, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas).

They will advise retirees about the best states to adopt for the next 10 years, based on cost-of-living factors. The top 10, according to the computations of Chase EConometrics, which stress low energy costs and minimum taxes: Utah, Louisiana, South Carolina, Nevada, Texas, New Mexico, Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia.

These how-to-do-it retirement books can be useful within limits. Still, they tend to be long on small answers, short on the big questions.

There is little that can be described as a philosophy of retirement or even a tradition of retirement beyond: When in doubt, head for Florida.

As for public policy, despite the headlines on social security, despite the protest-publicity obtained by the Gray Panthers, there is no clear sense of the scope of national responsibility, nor even a general awareness of the size of the problem.

Retirement is a quandary that has been postponed -- put out of mind -- both by society and individuals.

It cannot be postponed much longer.

By the year 2000, 32 million Americans will be living in retirement -- about 15 percent of the population. The community of the retired is becoming our greatest invisible minority -- a country-within-a-country bigger than California plus Alaska and Hawaii. There are more Americans over 65 at this moment than the sum of all Americans to have reached that age in the 205 years since the country was founded.

Yet the state of the art of retirement is in such a preliminary stage that the experts disagree over so fundamental an issue as to whether most Americans want to retire or not. Indeed, the very concept of retirement is a recent one. Noah Webster, an exhaustive lexicographer, saw no need to include "retirement" in its modern usage among his definitions in his 1828 dictionary. Most of the world's languages still have no word meaning retirement.