Ready to Work Until You Die? America Needs You

Shortfalls in retirement savings have been widely regarded as a crisis of our times. Perhaps. The history of the relationship between old age and work reveals a more complicated picture, one that calls into question the idea that retirement is both necessary and desirable. It turns out that the modern concept of retirement, far from reflecting a desire to give the elderly a break, was the product of something more insidious: age discrimination.

Nearly two centuries ago, lexicographer Noah Webster defined “retire” and “retirement” as a form of withdrawal: retiring for the evening, for example, or retiring from public life. But retiring to pursue hobbies and spend more time with the grandchildren while living off a lifetime’s worth of savings invested in stocks and bonds? No.

Back when Webster was doing his defining, 70% of white men over the age of 65 worked for a living. Official rates for women were lower, but probably only because their work — which often took place within the home — wasn’t counted the same way. In reality, women didn’t “retire” any more than men did.

The toil-until-you-die mentality was arguably a necessity, particularly on the hardscrabble family farms where most Americans lived and worked at the time. Historians have also argued that it reflected respect for the elderly, who accumulated useful knowledge about farming over the course of their lives.