Once upon a time, people worked all their lives. Then retirement was invented.
The idea of retiring had always been around. The rich would doff their periwigs at the end of an illustrious career and be chauffeured to their country estates to enjoy their sunset years. But most people kept plugging away.
Retirement was a dream that, if it came true at all, did so only for a few years for a few people. No one could have imagined the huge industry it has become, complete with age-appropriate communities, yoga groups, early-bird specials, and more than $2 trillion in 401(k)s.
Modern middle-class retirement owes its origin to the German Emperor William I, a forward-thinking royal who saw how grim life was for older workers in his realm. In the mid-1880s, William told the German parliament that “those who are disabled from work by age and invalidity have a well-grounded claim to care from the state.” A few years later, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck signed into law the world’s first social security act – a move of both compassion and politics since it also tamped down rising socialist sentiments in Germany.
It took another half a century for Americans to get Social Security. The World War II generation was the first real retirement generation. But get ready. Baby boomers are moving into their retirement years. As with everything boomers do, this will be a big, self-involved journey of discovery – Woodstock with comfortable shoes and early bedtime.
Try this if you have a minute: Go to Google’s Ngram viewer, which is an amazing new tool if you love words. Plug in the word “retiree.” A chart of how often it appears in the English language indicates only sporadic usage before 1945 – mostly describing soldiers who have withdrawn from the field of battle. After ’45, the word retiree skyrockets. (“Retirement planning” comes along in the 1950s. “Early bird specials” blast off after 1980. But “shuffleboard” peaked in the 1950s. There’s a tale behind each of those trends.)
The modern idea of retirement is a little more than half a century old. And retirement itself is changing (a Christian Science Monitor report explains how). It’s not just naps in the hammock and puttering in the garden any longer. It includes late-in-life education, volunteering, and working because you want to, not because you have to. Or sometimes working because you still have to, but doing so part time.
Regardless of the individual retiree’s circumstances, most people who cut the cord with the workweek describe the experience as a mixture of elation and terror. I recently phoned Susan Trausch, a former co-worker who retired in 2005. There are thousands of people like her. What makes her different is that, as a journalist, she decided to take notes on what happened when she retired. In a funny and touching little book (“Groping Toward Whatever, or How I Learned to Retire, (Sort of)”), she describes how dealing with identity can be the biggest challenge. Like many people who no longer carry business cards, she struggled with the “so what do you do?” question at dinner parties. She found herself starting projects and dropping them.
Her relationship with time has been particularly interesting. Time, she writes, “evaporates into the ether, weasels out through a crack in the universe, and plops into a black hole while you’re messing with string in the kitchen drawer and not writing a novel or joining the Peace Corps or planning a trip to the Orient or doing much of anything worth talking about.” On the other hand, she sometimes finds herself in long and meaningful conversations. And at the gas station or at red lights, she says, “the wait no longer feels like an insult but a nice little pause.”
She is a retiree. She does some teaching, some writing, some meditating. It isn’t an end state, she says. It is a journey. “Where am I going?” she asks. “Somewhere. Somewhere interesting. We’ll see.”
John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.