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Models for the future

By Marilyn GardnerLiving page editor of The Christian Science Monitor / September 24, 1981

Nobody doubts that retirement is a state in a state of change. The disagreement is over how soon and how radical the change will be. Maggie Kuhn -- founder and still leader, a decade later, of the Gray Panthers -- speaks with the optimism and impatience of an exuberant activist. David H. Fischer -- professor of history and author of "Growing Old in America" -- sees "the beginnings of a glacial change in attitudes." But he cautions against expecting too much, too soon.

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The Kuhn scenario presents the agenda of an activist, the due bill for the future. The Fischer scenario offers the perspective of a historian. Kuhn and Fischer are persuasive debaters of the revolutionary vs. the evolutionary theories of retirement in the future.

In an extended conversation Maggie Kuhn offered The Christian Science Monitor her perspective on how today's dominant view of retirement came about:

"The Sun Cities, the Leisure Worlds have attracted the well-to-do wha have bought the myth that old age is play time and nap time, not a time to be engaged. The growth of those retirement communities is really a product of the disengagement theory.

"The disengagement theory was postulated about 40 years ago by two white middle-aged men in Kansas, Cummings and Henry. They based their theory on a very small sample of 200 white middle-aged Kansas males. They said the way in which you age successfully is to disengage yourself from what you have been doing is society all your life, and for society to disengage for you.

"The theory got into the thinking of millions, and it became the rationale, the philosophical basis for public policy that is age-segregated.

"There is some evidence that people are turning from it."

Miss Kuhn also offers her vision of what the retirement future will and ought to be:

"I feel also that mandatory retirement is coming under questioning. . . . There are people who have worked in hard, dangerous, distasteful jobs who want to retire early. Seventy-four percent of the people who are early retirees -- not yet eligible for social-security benefits -- retire early for health reasons. They have worked at jobs that are hazardous and that have injured their health.

"Another 14 percent are early retirees because they are discriminated against in matters of employment. It's illegal to refuse a job to a candidate who is qualified at a younger age than 70, but women in particular have had a great deal of difficulty establishing themselves in the labor force and securing jobs in their early 50s. The assumption is that you can't work very much and you can't learn anything new and you can't perform physically and keep up with the young. All of those assumptions have no factual base. People can learn all kinds of things. There's no limit to learning.

"People retire early with a lot of encouragement from management and labor. We would like to see retirement eliminated entirely. If one wishes to withdraw from a particular job, there should be every opportunity to move into another kind of work. We think that employers and labor unions should be encouraging people to be able to move from one kind of employment to a second and third and fourth career. Increasing numbers of people are doing this because of inflation. They find they can't live on a fixed income."

The Kuhn vision of the future requires changes in the work place. "It means what we can restructured work," she says.

"We're saying that businessmen should be restructuring their work and retirement policies. Sabbaticals for everybody. Job sharing -- women have been doing that with great effect with part-time work.

"But employers are still hooked and hung up on 9-to-5 jobs, five days a week. They can't envision any variations. Millions of people would like to work on a more flexible basis. They would like to work in teams, on a part-time basis.

"Employers don't see it yet, and labor unions are completely blind. They're concerned about getting the younger workers enrolled and getting their initiation fees.