When Should We Retire?

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IN THE EARLY YEARS of the twentieth century, when mandatory retirement was being debated, it was a bitterly controversial political issue—on the same order as, say, railroad regulation, the trusts, the tariff, conservation, and other staples of the Progressive Era. The furor was most violently provoked by William Osier, a Canadian who had served as physician-in-chief of the Johns Hopkins Hospital for sixteen years. In 1905 Osier gave a valedictory address at Johns Hopkins before leaving to become Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford. During his triumphant tenure in Baltimore, he had reaped rewards as teacher, medical scholar, administrator, and man of letters. The shocking lesson he had drawn from this varied experience was that creativity, energy, and achievement were inversely related to chronological age. Before a large audience Osier characterized his departure as akin to retirement, and he went on to suggest the need for institutionalizing early retirement as a means of maintaining an active and productive medical faculty. Without a hint of humor, the fifty-six-year-old physician spoke of the “uselessness of men above forty years of age” and referred—with a touch of levity this time—to novelist Anthony Trollope’s vision of a “peaceful departure by chloroform” at the age of sixty-one.

Osier’s valedictory provoked a storm of indignation. One prominent critic was Sen. Chauncey Depew of New York. Interviewed by a reporter from the Baltimore American , the seventy-one-year-old Depew cited several examples of successful older people and went on to provide hour-by-hour details of his own strenuous schedule of speeches and travel. Throughout the country, newspapers carried essays extolling the achievements of men over forty: Franklin, Hawthorne, Webster, Lincoln, Gladstone, Disraeli, Lew Wallace. “Dr. Osier declares that men are old at 40 and worthless at 60,” the Washington Times observed tartly. “There must be an age at which a man is an ass. What is the Doctor’s age, anyhow?”

In raising the issues of aging and retirement and linking them to productivity, Osier had touched a raw nerve. Corporations and government agencies had begun to question and to deprecate the contributions of workers over forty. An increasingly mechanized and industrialized America began to value youth as never before. A Springfield, Ohio, printer attributed the growing interest in youth in his business to the new Mergenthaler typesetting machines. Because of the “intense productivity” of these machines, he said, “no longer can the mechanic in the printing craft—nor in any other, for that matter—look forward to a long career in his chosen profession. Twenty-five to thirty years can safely be placed as the limit. So far as the mechanic is concerned, Osier’s theory is a fact.”

In the military, too, the value of youth was emphasized. Shortly after Osier’s blast, Adm. George Dewey warned that the nation would “assuredly meet with disaster in a naval war unless younger men are given command of the ships of our navy.” (Dewey himself was sixty-eight at the time.)

DURING THE DECADES following Osier’s valedictory, ageism and retirement became weapons in a national crusade for efficiency, productivity, creativity, and progress itself. Retirement was not conceived of as a simple reward, nor was it synonymous with leisure. It had purposes and functions. It was part of what some called the “labor question,” and it would soon become a part of the repertory of the new practitioners of industrial relations. George W. Perkins captured the expectations surrounding retirement in a 1914 letter to Coleman du Pont, who had asked the retired banker for advice on setting wages. “I never heard of any plan except one,” Perkins wrote, “that would assist in regulating salaries, and that is a pension plan. … The right sort of pension plan comes pretty near being a panacea for most of the ills that exist between employer and employee.”

The belief that economic and social problems would wither away when tapped with the magic wand of deferred compensation in the form of pensions may strike us as hopelessly optimistic. But it seemed reasonable to a generation committed to the gospel of efficiency preached by Henry Ford and Frederick W. Taylor, whose stopwatch had by 1910 become a familiar sight in American machine shops. (See “Frederick Winslow Taylor,” August/September 1979.) Thus the pension became one of several devices adopted by corporations to “rationalize” and reduce burgeoning labor turnover in the decade after 1910. The pension would encourage workers to forgo higher wages elsewhere; at the same time, it would discourage the “floaters” who undermined stability in the urban labor markets. Meanwhile, both in higher education and in churches with stagnating memberships, advocates of retirement defended the pension as a means of attracting the young and talented to professions that were losing the flower of youth to business and law, where they could make more money.