When Should We Retire?


IN 1978 A FEDERAL statute made it illegal for most employers to impose mandatory retirement on workers under seventy. The new law was widely touted as yet another triumph of twentieth-century enlightenment. For, after all, was not compulsory retirement a relic of an era when the abilities of the elderly were not fully appreciated?

It would be comforting, perhaps, to believe that we have indeed progressed. But viewed through the lens of history, our present retirement policy appears to be a step backward, a regression—in time, at least—to a nineteenth-century world based solidly on the work ethic. More important, a glance into the past makes clear that significant changes in policy have always been made to serve broad economic and social needs rather than those of elderly people.

“Retirement,” of course, means something very different now from what it did in the nineteenth century. In fact, retirement as we have understood the term since 1950—either as something forced upon us or as a great block of leisure time granted as the reward for years of labor—did not exist to any appreciable extent in 1900 or even in 1935.

Today, despite recent inroads on the institution, for most of us retirement calls up a montage of images of how we expect to spend a span of years. Retirement is late breakfasts, a thoroughly read newspaper, watching the Cubs at Wrigley Field on a Tuesday afternoon, framing pictures down in the basement or doing needlepoint in the living room, Meals On Wheels, getting by on Social Security, moving to St. Petersburg.

For turn-of-the-century Americans, retirement was something altogether different. The common lot of the elderly was work, not leisure. Aside from judges and railroad men, very few employees were subject to mandatory retirement. Even ordinary pension plans were rare, with coverage being limited to Civil War veterans, public employees in major cities, and a handful of workers in private industry.

In the absence of pension plans and Social Security, workers who were neither required to retire nor could afford to do so stayed on to staff the nation’s shops, factories, offices, government bureaus, and professions. In 1903, for example, 114 employees of the Treasury of the United States, representing nearly 2 percent of its staff, were between the ages of seventy and seventy-nine, while another 12 were more than eighty years old. In 1913 the Protestant Episcopal Church maintained 406 clergymen who were seventy or older, and 41 who were eighty or older. In that year, more than one-eighth of the church’s total salary payments went to clergymen above sixty-five. A decade later the Chicago school system employed two eighty-three-year-old principals and six principals and teachers over seventy-five.


Most of these older people labored as hard, and presumably as productively, as their younger colleagues. Others, usually with the approval of their employers, combined work with “on-the-job” retirement. Federal employees who were also Civil War veterans were, according to one source, “permitted to hold their present positions without disturbance, irrespective of the work done by them.” Some “government paupers”—a term commonly used to describe aged employees—came to work on crutches or in wheelchairs. A 1904 report on Chicago’s police department found “incapacitated men tucked away in every corner, guarding schools when there is no necessity … doing messenger duty when there is no necessity. …” In 1911 the New York Factory Investigating Commission discovered that the critical occupation of factory inspector was being used as an informal retirement mechanism. “There are a great many inspectors,” one witness testified, “who have reached that age, where it is very hard for them to do practical inspection work; that is, to climb the stairs, to go out on fire escapes, and to go down into dark basements.…” Many corporations and government agencies transferred older workers to less demanding tasks and even tolerated special arrangements. In Philadelphia, for example, an elderly teacher twice a day left her class in charge of a student monitor while she took a nap.

While, to us, this on-the-job retirement may seem flawed by a tolerance for inefficiency or even corruption, the system was in some ways workable and humane; it allowed thousands of older people to receive a dependable, if somewhat reduced, source of income through an arrangement made on the basis of personal ties between employee and supervisor. And these ties often, if by no means invariably, ensured that workers would be treated as individuals, with special needs and abilities.