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When Should We Retire?
Twentieth-century answers to that question have much less to do with the health and happiness of the retiree than we have been led to believe
April/may 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 3
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.)
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.