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.
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.
Retirement hardly existed as a fact -- to say nothing of an idea -- until this century. In 1900 roughly 3 out of 4 males over 65 were still working, compared with 1 out of 5 today.
The custom of retirement was more or less invented, as a new Carnegie-Mellon University report has observed, "to combat fearsome unemployment rates and to make room for . . . the younger element."
A farmer never ran out of work and thus never retired. In rural China today 80 percent of those over 65 are still not retired.
It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the basic apparatus of retirement -- the social-security system -- was set up to solve an unemployment crisis. Ollie Randall, who was one of the architects, recalls: "When I was down in Washington in the '30s with Harry Hopkins, Frances Perkins, and the rest . . . we weren't trying to do a social service job, we weren't trying to do anything but an economic one. That was the original aim of the whole Social Security Act . . . .
"At first they said the age of retirement would be 70. This was the Depression, and when the staff looked at the statistics, they saw that the 70 -year-old cutoff wouldn't take enough people out of the market to give jobs to younger people. It was reduced to 65 because Bismarck [the first man to socialize retirement] did it in Germany . . . . Sixty-five was just an arbitrary decision based on the economics of the Depression. Before this whole darn business of social security started, people just tended to keep on working."
In less time than a worker's career, "a rare and novel social pattern" -- to quote a historian of retirement -- has become "a practically universal social institution." Or, more accurately, an economic institution.
As an economic institution retirement has not done altogether badly. Only about 40 percent of American workers are covered by a private pension plan.Only about half of those -- or 1 out of 5 -- will fulfill the terms of their pensions and receive them. The vast majority of those now in retirement depend heavily on social security.
By census standards 15.7 percent of all Americans over 65 are living below the poverty level, which is now just under $5,700 a year for a two-person household. These figures are intolerable considered by themselves, or by comparison with countries far less rich than the United States. In France, for example, a retired person receives about 94 percent of the per capita national income of all citizens.
But after all this is said, things have been improving for those over 65 in this country. An estimated 35.2 percent were living below the poverty level in 1959 -- more than double the figure today.
One cannot minimize the scenes, familiar from TV, or retired men and women in lonely, dark rooms, measuring their rationed dinner from a baby food jar. Yet no matter how inadequate the economics of retirement have proven, the philosophy of retirement has lagged even further behind and must be held finally responsible. Invariably, a society fails to solve the problems it fails to perceive as a whole.
Beyond being an act of termination that comes 40 or so years after the letter beginning "You are to be employed . . ." -- what is this institution, retirement? How have we failed to understand it?
In one of the newest and most thoughtful books on the subject, "The Reality of Retirement," Jules Z. Willing concludes: "Retirement is by no means ignored; on the contrary it is widely discussed and written about. What is not said is how it feels: the inner experience of it. . . . The unanswered question is not so much what happens tom people when they retire as what happens inm people."
A Louis Harris poll on retirement seems to confirm Willing's fear that the inner experience of retirement is concealed, even by the retired speaking among themselves. Questioning more than 4,000 people -- half of them under 65, half of them over the retirement age -- the pollsters found that the two groups revealed "enormous discrepancies" in the way they viewed the advantages and disadvantages of retirement. Sixty-two percent of the 18-to-64 group thought "not enough money" would be a major disadvantage; only 15 percent of the retirees themselves rated it so. Fifty-four percent of the 18-to-64 group thought "not feeling needed" would be a serious problem: only 7 percent of the retirees agreed. Fifty-one percent of the 18-to-64 group suspected that "poor health" would be an important limitation: only 21 percent of those in retirement found it to be.
Perhaps the most revealing of the Harris findings was this: While the older respondents were invariably more cheerful than the younger, they believed themselves to be the exception. They assumed that the gloomier answers applied to their colleagues in retirement.
"Old people," the Harris report observed, "like the young, have bought the negative images of old age" -- for others who have retired.
By being preoccupied with the disadvantages of retirement, as it now exists, have we prevented ourselves from appreciating the potential advantages? It might seem indicative that the best and most balanced description of what Willing calls the "inner experience" was written nearly 150 years ago by the English essayist Charles Lamb.
Here is how retirement felt to him -- and millions since -- when, as he wrote soberly, "I went home -- for ever":
"For the first day or two I felt stunned, overwhelmed. I could only apprehend my felicity; I was too confused to tasted it sincerely. I wandered about, thinking I was happy, and knowing that I was not. I was in the condition of a prisoner in the old Bastile, suddenly let loose after a 40 years' confinement.I could scarcely trust myself with myself. I was like passing out of Time into Eternity -- for it is a sort of Eternity for a man to have his Time all to himself."
Next came the second stage that nearly every retiree can also recognize. "I missed my old chains," Lamb lamented "Having all holidays, I am as though I had none."
Backed into this either-or position, Lamb, in behalf of all retirees to come, protested against his new predicament. Why, he asked, must he choose between complete idleness and "being grown to my desk, as it were" until "the wood had entered into my soul"?
Then Lamb, with brilliant insight, made the invaluable distinction between work and what he termed "task-work." "Task-work" is what one retires from. According to Lamb's assumption, a balance of play and continuous education and work should constitute a good retirement. But this work would be self-assigned, the work to which one had perhaps been drawn all one's life, the work one would do for nothing: the work of freedom.
Here is what the British gerontologist Alex Comfort calls a "second trajectory" -- a new beginning worthy of the name. The recurring American question, "What do you do?"m would no longer be answered by announcing one's job, one's "task-work" -- or being left without an aswer.
Lamb's vision of a choice between "idleness" and "chains" opens up a new concept of retirement. It also makes us think about all that precedes retirement. If we are to come out of the rocking chair after 65, should we, by the same argument, come off the fact track all those years before 65? If some balance of play and education and work constitutes a good retirement, why shouldn't a similar balance apply to life-before-retirement?
"Flexible retirement, part-time and in-and-out, is going to be the central social issue in the United States during the next decade," the economist Peter F. Drucker has predicted. "It's going to play the role that minority employment played in the 1960s and women's rights played in the 1970s."
It has taken nearly a century and a half to get from Lamb to Drucker. We are just beginning to think in such positive, imaginative ways about retirement. We are just beginning to realize that, if we don't understand retirement, we probably don't understand the rest of human existence either.If Lamb and Drucker are right, it ought to be viewed more continuously -- as a whole. This is the vision of those who see a need for an economic "solution" to retirement, and beyond that, a social "adjustment" -- but even then, something more: a goal and a purpose and a sense of achievement equal to, and perhaps surpassing, the goal and purpose and sense of achievement of "task-work."