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When Should We Retire?

July 2024
12min read

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

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.

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.

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.

Perhaps because some workers had clung to the work-based, nineteenth-century system of security, or because retirement had not proved to be the panacea some had expected it to be, on the eve of the Great Depression the modern system of retirement had yet to take hold. As of 1932, less than 20 percent of American workers were covered by pension plans.

The Depression, curiously, helped gain widespread acceptance of the new system. At a time when jobs were so hard to find, thousands of older workers willingly sacrificed their own work lives and retired to open up jobs for the young.

IN THE TEN YEARS after 1930, the percentage of males over sixty-five in the labor force dropped a full ten points. More important, the decline was not only related to the Depression, for many older workers stayed out of the labor market through the boom years of the Second World War. By the early 1950s, when corporations began to support benefit increases, retirement had replaced work as the general experience of older Americans.

Two factors accounted for retirement’s final triumph. The first was the Social Security Act of 1935. Drafted by the Committee of Economic Security, appointed by Roosevelt in 1934, the act reflected the industrial relations outlook of the committee members. The program was designed to facilitate—but also to ensure—the ouster of older people from the work force. It included what is called the “retirement test”—fifteen dollars per month being set as the maximum one could earn without losing benefits. Although those who drafted the act were doubtless concerned with providing economic security to retired persons, there was never any question that they had to be retired—removed from the labor market—to receive benefits. As one committee member recalled later, “We never called these benefits anything but retirement benefits.”

The second factor contributing to the triumph of retirement was the “selling” of leisure. If the new system of retirement was to become dominant, more older workers had to “choose” the life of leisure. Thus life insurance companies—and others deeply involved in the pension business—began marketing retirement to the public. In a speech delivered to the National Industrial Conference Board in 1952, vice-president H. G. Kenagy of the Mutual Life Insurance Company urged his audience to prepare employees for retirement at fifty. “Just recently,” he said, “house organs that are coming to my desk have been doing a splendid job of selling the idea … that old age can be beautiful, and that the best of life is yet to come.… That is done by constant stories of happily retired people telling what they do, but still more, of course, emphasizing what they did to get ready for the life they are now living.” A host of new magazines for the retired, from Lifetime Living to Modern Maturity , boosted retirement as a nirvana of travel, hobbies, and petty capitalism. Most major corporations and labor unions developed retirement “preparation” programs, designed as much to condition employees to accept a fundamentally f unctionless old age as to plan financially for it. The state of Florida, hoping to lure the retired from the chilly North, held out the vision of retirement as an adventurous combination of work and play, emphasizing in its promotional literature the “endless opportunities to start small services and business ventures.” While academic sociologists of the 1960s praised retirement as a form of “disengagement” or “inevitable mutual withdrawal,” their colleagues in the new discipline of leisure studies argued that if the elderly found retirement difficult, this was because they had not yet learned how to enjoy themselves on what David Riesman called the “frontier of consumption.” When Americans learned to play, retirement would come naturally.

Unfortunately, maintaining an aging population in year-round leisure—even in moderate discomfort—has proved to be an expensive proposition.

They did learn to play. But even as they learned to frolic in the sun, the whole edifice of retirement began to show signs of stress. A combination of economic and social incentives had convinced millions of older workers that they could afford to retire and that they wanted to. Unfortunately, maintaining an aging population in year-round leisure—even in moderate discomfort—was proving to be an expensive proposition. And while the cost of funding Social Security began to seem prohibitive, raising the tax rates to keep the system sound was a politically risky business. A significant sector of the political and business communities became convinced that the nation, as a productive unit, could no longer tolerate retirement policies that were based on simple age classifications rather than on ability. Mandatory retirement, created in the name of efficiency, was now regarded as inefficient.

ONE RESULT OF these pressures was a spate of proposals to raise the eligibility age under Social Security. Another was the Retirement Act of 1978, which raised the permissible mandatory retirement age from sixty-five to seventy in most public and private employment. This denouement was, perhaps, inevitable; after all, the nation has some economic problems, and if a rollback of retirement would help to solve them, so be it.

Yet while this recent twist, or turnabout, is understandable, there is something disturbing about the manner in which legislators and the public at large were able to conveniently forget why mandatory retirement had been instituted in the first place and what its role in society had been. Overnight, it seemed, what had been created and accepted as a functional instrument of social engineering was transformed into a curious relic reflecting nothing but prejudice, stereotypes, and ignorance. Overnight, too, the alluring concept of leisure was replaced by a new—or rather centuries-old—concept: work. In place of the idyllic postwar vision of retirement, Jimmy Carter offered the vision of an active and “inspiring” old age, trotting out as evidence his seventy-eight-year-old mother, who a decade before had served in the Peace Corps in India. And liberal senator Jacob Javits, apparently oblivious to all the effort that had once gone into ensuring that older people would not work, now hailed his own antiretirement measure as “a new Magna Carta for older people.”

If elderly people of the turn of the century could compare notes with those of us approaching this century’s end, the two generations might well conclude that, whatever else has changed, the fate of the elderly remains the same: to serve the needs of other age groups and to be retired, or put back to work, in the interest of someone else’s conception of the general welfare.

SOCIAL SECURITY: How the Trouble Began

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