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
In public schools, where pensions were common by 1920, efficiency was used time and again to justify mandatory retirement programs. In 1919 a House committee considering a District of Columbia pension bill heard a teacher named Rebecca Shanley defend a provision that would allow compulsory retirement at sixty-two. “We felt,” said Shanley, “that at that age the teacher who had been in the schoolroom with 40 or 50 children for so many years will have lost much of her efficiency.… We felt that a teacher… at the age of 62 ought to be retired for the good of the service.” For employers, retirement programs served another purpose: they could save money by retiring highersalaried teachers and replacing them with younger—and cheaper—ones.
On another level, retirement was seen as an effective new means of controlling unrest within a society that felt threatened by anarchism, socialism, and the “new immigrant.” “The present social unrest among all classes of people—especially the ignorant,” the Springfield, Massachusetts, superintendent of schools had written in 1891, required a new breed of teacher—well-rewarded, secure, capable of making a forceful impression on “the minds of the vulgar and the innocent.” In short, teachers were expected to turn out good, conservative citizens. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching was established in 1905 with a similar end in mind. The foundation administered a retirement program for college professors. The director, Henry S. Pritchett, believed, that once professors were organized in such a program, they would gain a heightened sense of their place in the social order—a greater feeling of “responsibility”—and this, in turn, would have a benign effect on the content of their teaching. A narrower case for the pension as an instrument of social control was made in a 1905 essay by a banker named Frank A. Vanderlip. He attributed the railroads’ interest in the “straight” pension—under which employers provided the entire sum—to their justifiable desire to establish “military discipline” among workers. For the sake of a pension, an employee would, Vanderlip believed, “sacrifice much of his personal liberty, including his right to strike for better wages and shorter hours.”
Vanderlip, Pritchett, Perkins, and Osier were all involved in the same enterprise: the transition from one system of security (or dependency), based on the workplace, to another, which was based on money payments. The wrenching experience involved in this transition is illustrated by events in the federal agencies following the pas- sage of the Civil Service Retirement Act in 1920.
Many of the first retirees were angry and frightened by what was happening to them. They felt that they had been deprived suddenly of job, friends, and income.
In Washington, D.C., one bureaucrat wrote “ GOODBYE, PAY ROLL : Wail of a Retired Federal Clerk” for a new magazine called the Annuitant . One verse began, “Friends in office I adore, but love the pay envelope even more.”
It was not the elderly themselves who provided the initial impetus for retirement. It was, rather, the efficiency experts and bureaucrats.
High-level bureaucrats in charge of administering the law were divided about how it should be enforced. Although most employees were to be retired automatically at age seventy, they could apply for a two-year “continuance,” to be awarded on the ground of efficiency. In evaluating whether a worker should be granted a continuance, some officials—defenders, if you will, of the old system of security—took personal problems into consideration, such as debts, mortgages, health, and the number of relatives dependent on the worker. (“This woman,” one report noted, “was unfortunate in her marital relations, and the earning capacity of her husband is not a very large factor in the maintenance of the home, and he makes no contribution at all towards the payments on this property.”)
Compassion, however, was on the way out. The future belonged to men like Gaylord Saltzgaber, commissioner of pensions in the Interior Department and a staunch advocate of the new system. Eighty-eight persons in his jurisdiction applied for continuance; he refused to grant even one. “I do not believe there is one [older person in the pension bureau],” he wrote, “whose work may not be better done by a younger person and generally at a lower initial salary; consequently I do not see how I can honestly certify that the continuance of any of them would be advantageous to the public service.” Saltzgaber and his ilk could now retire aging clerks with a comparatively good conscience, secure—as the clerks themselves were not—in the knowledge that the federal pension insured their survival.
It was not the elderly themselves, then, who provided the initial impetus for retirement (although most older workers, as much from necessity as choice, supported the new retirement systems). It was, rather, the efficiency experts seeking to meet the competitive pressures posed by the eight-hour day, the industrial relations experts engaged in labor-force control, the bureaucrats like Saltzgaber for whom older workers were obstacles in the quest for costeffective government. Fundamentally, retirement was a product of the needs of American business.